Philippine Court Finds Police Officers Guilty Of Murdering Teenager During Duterte’s Bloody Drug War

On November 29th, the Regional Trial Court of Caloocan City in the Philippines found three police officers guilty of the murder of 17 year old Kian Delos Santos.

On August 16th 2017, Kian Delos Santos was shot by two policemen during a “one-time big-time operation” in Caloocan City. The official police report stated that Delos Santos noticed the officers, drew a gun and “directly shot” at them. As their “lives were in imminent danger”, the officers returned fire and killed Delos Santos, the report said.

Witnesses challenged the police report, claiming that they had seen Delos Santos loitering near his house until he was grabbed by two men and led away. A CCTV footage also shows a man believed to be Delos Santos being dragged by two plainclothes police officers towards the area where his body was found.

The killing of Kian Delos Santos sparked outrage in the Philippines, leading to protests demanding justice. Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa claimed to be sorry for the killing, and added that he would rather see his officers alive than dead. Although President Rodrigo Duterte has openly encouraged the killing of drug users, promising no legal consequences for police who “do their job,” he was forced to issue an apology after CCTV footage of the incident was revealed. He also announced a temporary nationwide halt to police drug raids. An autopsy of Delos Santos revealed that the 17 year old suffered three gunshot wounds, the first of which was in the back of the head.

The Caloocan City court ruled on November 29th that extrajudicial killings can never be justified in the name of law and order, saying “public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life.” Three of the officers associated with the murder of Delos Santos were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The case could serve as a model for future court cases against murders by police in the Philippines. Many other cases have been reported, such as the police killing of 19 year old Carl Anaiz and 14 year old Reynaldo De Guzman in similarly suspicious circumstances in Caloocan City. Families of killed drug war victims have taken their cases to the International Criminal Court. However, President Duterte announced that the Philippines will withdraw from the ICC in March 2019, criticizing the organization for its attempts to “politicize human rights.” The Duterte administration will now use the Delos Santos case as proof that the Philippines has “a robust judicial system.” Despite withdrawal from the ICC, Duterte can still be prosecuted if it is found that violations were committed during the time in which the Philippines was a signatory.

The Commission on Human Rights estimates that at least 12,000 were killed between 2016 and 2017 as a result of extrajudicial actions, including vigilantism. From his election campaign right and throughout his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has actively encouraged the killing of drug users as well as drug dealers. In September 2016 he said: “for as long as I am the president, nobody but nobody– no military man or policeman will go to prison because they performed their duties. … If [drug suspects] pull out a gun, kill them. If they don’t, kill them, son of a whore so it’s over, lest you lose the gun. I’ll take care of you.” Duterte has frequently made such statements, essentially offering police a carte blanche in the drug war. The deaths of teenagers such as Kian Delos Santos is the natural result of such rhetoric.

On December 3rd, Duterte claimed that he makes use of illegal marijuana to stay awake during strenuous activities. He backtracked later on and claimed to be joking. In 2016, Duterte also claimed to use the powerful opioid fentanyl until his doctor warned him he was “abusing the drug.” When questioned, he backtracked again and claimed to have made the story up. Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams took issue with Duterte’s supposed jokes, saying “marijuana is illegal in the Philippines, and Duterte’s admission of using it –whether in jest or not– undermines the rationale for his “drug war” and exposes its murderous hypocrisy. It adds cruel insult to injury for the victims and their families.”

Duterte’s erratic behavior is dangerous and emboldens and encourages law enforcement to act outside of the law. As seen in the Kian Delos Santos case however, Duterte is prepared to backtrack and withdraw his comments when public opinion sours. While a large majority of the Philippines still support the war on drugs and have trust in the president, polling suggests these numbers have been dropping in 2018. This, combined with the national precedent set by the Delos Santos case as well as growing pressure from the ICC, will hopefully temper police violence in the Philippines’ bloody drug war.