Alarm, disbelief as Duterte’s former drug agent runs for president

In June 2019, Philippine police officers carried out a sting operation against two suspected drug traffickers in the suburb of Manila.

In the course of the operation, authorities claimed that the suspects involved them in a shooting, shot an officer in the neck and killed him. The two suspects also died.

A three-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the suspects, was caught in the crossfire. She was hit on the head and later died in hospital. Police said her father used her as a “human shield.” But the girl’s mother refuted the report, saying her family was already asleep when police started shooting and that her husband was unarmed. He later filed murder charges against the police.

Ronald dela Rosa had just assumed his seat in the Senate when the incident occurred. He had previously served as President Rodrigo Duterte’s chief of police and top executor of the war on drugs, which by then had already left at least 6,600 dead.

When asked about the rules of conduct in the war on drugs and the death of an innocent child, the first time the senator joked with a mixture of Tagalog and English: “It’s an imperfect world… shit happens.

“If you are a police officer, do you really want a child to get caught in a crossfire? Never. Honestly, there really is collateral damage. “

When the senator came as a surprise on Friday by bidding for the Philippine presidency in 2022 just 30 minutes before the deadline, human rights groups are raising the alarm about his human rights record and the perception of impunity it represents. .

Dela Rosa’s candidacy shows the “brutal policy duplication” of the deadly war within the “Duterte clique,” Human Rights Watch’s Carlos Conde told Al Jazeera.

“There is this refusal to acknowledge the problem of the war on drugs,” he said, adding that the senator’s candidacy ensures that “they are protected from accountability” in case he wins the elections.

“They want to have some kind of insurance to protect themselves after 2022.”

Conde also said the drug war policy gives Dela Rosa “significant political capital” as a candidate for the ruling party.

“Other than that, not promising to continue the war on drugs would be a repudiation of Duterte’s policy. So they will keep it. “

The senator has long fueled controversy.

In an earlier incident when police officers were accused of killing an unarmed teenager, dela Rosa had also defended her men, saying that while the incident was “excessive,” authorities did not intentionally kill the high school student. Later, three police officers were convicted of murder in the teenager’s death in 2017.

The then-police chief had also rejected a 2018 Supreme Court order to release data from the war on drugs and other details of police operations, citing the safety of the officers involved.

Dela Rosa, who briefly served as the country’s prison chief, had come under fire when he told prison guards that they must “be ready to kill” and not be intimidated by prisoners, adding: “I hate cowards.” .

In 2016, police officers under his command were accused of killing a city mayor who was already in custody on drug-related charges. Dela Rosa had also issued a police memorandum in 2016 ordering the “neutralization” of drug suspects in connection with the agency’s “Double Barrel” campaign against drug suspects.

‘Frivolous attitude towards human rights’

Duterte’s war on drugs is now the subject of an investigation at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Aside from Duterte, the only other senior official mentioned specifically in the investigation room is de la Rosa.

The latest government data released in June shows that by the end of April 2021, police and other security forces had killed at least 6,117 suspected drug traffickers during their operations. But government figures cited by the UN in June 2020 already showed at least 8,600 deaths.

Human rights groups say the death toll could be between 27,000 and 30,000. They accuse the authorities of carrying out summary executions in which innocent suspects, including children, were killed.

Prior to his election as a senator in 2019, Ronald dela Rosa served as Duterte’s national police chief as well as Davao’s chief of police when the president was still mayor of the southern city. [File: Ezra Acayan/Reuters]

Duterte has dismissed the ICC investigation and vowed to block any of the prosecutors from entering the country.

Also under investigation were summary executions in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte served as mayor for several years. Dela Rosa served as Davao Police Chief under Duterte from 2012 to 2013. Prior to that, he also held various police positions in Davao.

Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, now runs the city, and some analysts suspect that dela Rosa can only be a warmer seat for her candidacy. Under the country’s electoral rules, late entries are allowed until November 15 if an declared candidate withdraws and yields to a substitute candidate.

When the ICC investigation was announced in September, dela Rosa responded during a Senate committee hearing saying: “As a Filipino, I would rather be tried, convicted and hanged in a Philippine court rather than tried, convicted and hanged in court. “. foreign court “.

He did not mention that the Hague ICC prohibits capital punishment and the Philippines has abolished the practice.

Edre Olalia is president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a group that frequently represents victims of human rights. He told Al Jazeera that dela Rosa’s candidacy “obviously bodes ill for the respect, promotion and protection of human rights” in the Philippines.

“His record and attitude to serious accusations [of human rights violations], the carefree and even frivolous way in which he responds to these accusations before the ICC, that reflects a lot about his political position, “said Olalia.

He adds that Dela Rosa’s candidacy “plays on the script that he wants to divert any responsibility even at the ICC level.”

“Even if it’s not a placeholder [candidate], he will still benefit if he becomes president, albeit remote as he is now. But you’ll never really know. “

‘A mockery of the process’

Dela Rosa has not clearly ruled out that he may step aside in favor of Duterte-Carpio, but insists he is qualified to become the country’s next president.

Shortly after submitting his candidacy on Friday, the senator told reporters in Manila that he only learned that he had been elected as the presidential candidate of the ruling PDP-Laban party two hours before the 5 p.m. (09:00 a.m. GMT).

“That is the strategy. It’s because when you advertise early, you will also become an early target. That’s why we kept it a secret, ”he explained.

But when asked if he was willing to give way to Duterte-Carpio, he replied: “So that’s even better. This is a party decision. This is not my personal decision. “

In a separate interview on Monday, dela Rosa said that since Duterte-Carpio “has a very high capacity for victory,” he is “willing to give way if people don’t want to accept me as a serious candidate.”

In response to Dela Rosa’s statement, the rights group Karapatan said the senator’s decision made a “mockery” of the electoral process.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Karapatan referred to the announcement as “a blatant tactic that we know too well to take straight out of the playbook” by Duterte when he ran for president in 2016.

“There are more sinister plots that can definitely unfold in the days and months ahead. We cannot rule out the possibility that Sara Duterte will eventually run for president replacing [dela Rosa], or as vice president of Marcos Jr ”, added the group, referring to the son of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who is also running for the presidency.

Olalia, the president of NUPL, added that if it were found that dela Rosa was leading another candidate, it would show the “blatant trivialization of a solemn right that fought generations before us.”

“They see it as a game rather than a serious political exercise. They are taking us for fools. “

Apart from dela Rosa, among those who have declared their intention to run for the presidency are the leader of the opposition, Vice President Leni Robredo, international boxing champion, Senator Manny Pacquiao, Mayor of Manila Isko Moreno and former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Another lesser-known ally of Duterte, Undersecretary of Foreign Relations Ernesto Abella, also declared that he would run for the presidency. Abella served as a spokesperson for Duterte before he was appointed to the foreign affairs office.

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