ICC prosecutor suspends probe into Philippines drugs war

November 20, 2021 - 11:34 AM
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Rally against War on Drugs
Activists take part in a rally after 91 people were shot dead this week in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's ruthless war on drugs in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines August 18, 2017. (Reuters/Dondi Tawatao/File Photo)

THE HAGUE — International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Karim Khan has suspended a probe into suspected rights abuses during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, documents released on Friday showed.

Judges at the ICC in September approved a probe into the campaign in which thousands of suspected drug peddlers have died. Activists say many have been executed by law enforcement agencies with the tacit backing of the president.

Philippine authorities say the killings have been in self-defense and that the ICC has no right to meddle.

According to the court documents, Khan wrote that Manila had filed a deferral request on Nov. 10. Governments can ask the ICC to defer a case if they are implementing their own investigations and prosecutions for the same acts.

“The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request,” Khan wrote, adding that it would seek additional information from the Philippines.

The Duterte government has repeatedly said it will not cooperate with the ICC. Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the ICC in 2018, but the court has jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed while Manila was a member and up until 2019.

“There is no inconsistency with the request for suspension of action,” Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s chief legal counsel, told Reuters on Saturday, without elaborating. Duterte, 76, has said the ICC has no jurisdiction to indict him.

A Philippine lawyers group called on the ICC not to remove the glimmer of hope for families of drug-war victims.

“We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration,” the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which represents some victims’ families, said in a statement.

The Philippine justice system is “extremely slow and unavailing to the majority of poor and unrepresented victims”, it said.

Human Rights Watch said the government’s claim that existing domestic mechanisms afford citizens justice was absurd. “Let’s hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is,” Brad Adam, its Asia director, said in a statement.

The ICC decision is a boost for Duterte, who this week launched a run for the Senate in elections next year. He is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election as president.

“It will of course provide some relief in the raucous elections,” political analyst Ramon Casiple, vice president of consulting and research firm Novo Trends PH, told Reuters. “However, it may not enable (him) to do more after the elections, particularly if the incoming government chooses to cooperate with the ICC process.”

In its nearly two-decade existence, the ICC has convicted five men for war crimes and crimes against humanity, all African militia leaders from Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Uganda.

—Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, and Neil Jerome Morales in Manila; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and William Mallard