The Philippines’ Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced that it will review thousands of killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, its chief said, releasing details of a first batch of cases that it said pointed to abuses by police.
The DOJ released details on Wednesday of 52 killings by police in the five-year-old campaign that challenges the official narrative of the national police, that all of the thousands of victims were drug dealers who had resisted arrest.
The Philippines has come under pressure from the United Nations to investigate allegations of systematic murders of drug suspects, and the International Criminal Court recently announced it would investigate Duterte’s bloody campaign.
Asked by Reuters news agency if the Philippines would expand its investigation into the war on drugs, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said: “Time and resources permitting, the DOJ will review these thousands of other cases, too.”
The release of details marks a rare admission by the state that abuses may have taken place in the anti-drugs campaign.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet had urged the Philippines this month to publicise its findings on the 52 cases so its work can be evaluated.
In several cases the DOJ probed, those killed had no traces of gunpowder on their hands, or did not have a gun at all, the department said on Wednesday.
It also said police had used excessive force, shot suspects at close range, and relevant medical and police records were missing.
The cases would undergo further investigation and case build-up for possible filing of criminal charges against the officers, it said.
According to official figures, police have killed more than 6,000 people in the crackdown, but activists say many thousands more users were killed, execution style, by mysterious gunmen.
Police have denied involvement in those deaths.
In a statement, Edre Olalia, head of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, welcomed the DOJ’s announcement, saying it “appears to indicate progress in investigating and eventually making those responsible liable”.
“But then again, considering the paltry number, the inordinate lateness, and the unusual tentativeness, it is vulnerable to being viewed more as going through the motions, rather than as a thoroughgoing and proactive desire to decisively stop the carnage and the impunity,” Olalia said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
“The sound of the trumpeting elephant in the room bellows: why are these extrajudicial killings happening in the first place and why are a puny number of ‘erring police officers’ taking the fall all alone even at this very overdue time?”
When the ICC announced its investigation into the drug killings, Duterte rejected the move and pledged to prevent The Hague prosecutors from conducting an investigation in the Philippines.
Duterte has also said that he will not submit himself under the jurisdiction of the ICC. In 2019, the president had ordered the withdrawal of the Philippines from the Rome Statute, which created The Hague court.