Manuel Quezon III is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and the host of the political affairs show “The Explainer” on the ABS-CBN TV news channel.
As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was preparing to host ASEAN leaders in a summit in Manila this week, he received an unpleasant surprise. A Filipino lawyer, Jude Sabio, filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court (ICC), accusing Duterte and 11 others of crimes against humanity. His 77-page complaint puts forward the testimony of his clients, two self-confessed hired assassins who claim they took part in a campaign of liquidations stretching back to 1988, when Duterte became mayor of Davao City. By this account, the president’s current war on drugs, which has taken the lives of at least 4,000 people, is merely the latest installment in a long history of bloodletting.
These two witnesses have bedeviled the administration for months. Earlier this year, a Duterte ally, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, offered a glimpse of how the government aims to contain the allegations. One of Sabio’s clients, a police officer named Arturo Lascanas, confessed that he had personally participated in the liquidation of drug suspects and political enemies of the president. Lacson held a hearing, allowed Lascanas to make a statement and then promptly gaveled the hearing closed, forestalling sustained questioning and testimony on the matter.
But the issue won’t go away. Earlier this month, Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, briefed reporters on the situation in the Philippines. “We however do have a very sustained and deep concern when elements of the drug war are operating outside the rule of law,” he said. “The growing number of extrajudicial killings is troubling.” At about the same time, Time Magazine released its 100 Most Influential list, which included both Duterte and one of his foremost critics, detained Sen. Leila de Lima.
Foreigners are not the only ones worried about how things are going. Public opinion within the Philippines is showing increasing unease with the drug war. In one recent poll, 73 percent of respondents said they were worried that they or someone they knew could become a victim of extrajudicial killings. (That was slightly down from 78 percent last December.) Filipinos remain divided on police claims that drug suspects who were killed resisted arrest: 24 percent said they believed the police, 31 percent said otherwise, while 44 percent are unsure.
This sets the stage for May 2, when the Philippine congress returns from its Holy Week recess to confront a festering problem: the impeachment complaint against Duterte, filed two days before the recess began in March.
The complaint was filed by House of Representatives member Gary Alejano. He is a highly decorated former military officer who was court-martialed in 2008 for leading a military mutiny in 2003 and joining another one in 2007. He is a political ally of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who has been a consistent thorn in Duterte’s side since the 2016 campaign.
The impeachment complaint accuses Duterte of “bribery, murder, and crimes against humanity” in his war on drugs, alleging a continuation of the death-squad methods Duterte pioneered during his long years as mayor of Davao City. It also charges that he committed graft and engaged in plunder by allegedly having 11,000 nonexistent people on his city payroll and supposedly pocketing the salaries, and claims that he failed to reveal all of his property and earnings in mandatory asset declarations. On March 30, Alejano added more claims (betraying public trust, culpable violation of the constitution and other “high crimes”) linked with the president’s policy of seeking closer relations with China at the cost of tolerating Chinese encroachment on Philippine territory in the South China Sea.
Neither Alejano nor the rest of the political opposition are optimistic about their impeachment effort per se. Duterte continues to enjoy overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, bolstered by the most recent opinion poll results, which remain very high: One recent survey gives Duterte 78 percent for performance and 76 percent for trust (both were at 83 percent in December). Another finds that 76 percent of respondents (from 77 percent in December) are satisfied with Duterte’s performance, which makes dismissal of the impeachment motion inevitable. Even a member of the former administration Liberal Party (today part of the current administration coalition in the House) said an impeachment at this time would be “divisive as well as polarizing.”
And, yet, even though impeachment proceedings are likely to go nowhere, the issue still presents a fundamental problem for Duterte. Alejano and company have stated quite openly that they see impeachment as a prelude to a case in the ICC against Duterte. Their assumption is that the ICC will be more inclined to act if it can be proven that accountability mechanisms under Philippine law are a dead end. Impeachment being dismissed on purely procedural grounds would prove this. Such a dismissal would strengthen the argument of his critics that an international case is required. The ruling coalition could, on the other hand, go through the motions of allowing witnesses to testify and submit evidence. This would be a risky move as it could start swaying public opinion beyond personal concerns over safety.
During the congressional recess, key witness Lascanas went to Singapore due to concerns for his safety. That did not stop other police sources from revealing information about a bounty system, allegedly instituted with official blessings, for the liquidation of drug suspects. The Philippine media has been giving time to the families of victims who have also begun to speak out against Duterte and the police. Officials have started muttering about a global conspiracy to bring down the president. One is inclined to wonder if Filipinos will believe them.