Philippine President Duterte would rather die than face International Criminal Court, spokesperson says

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would rather “die first” before facing an international tribunal, his spokesperson said Thursday, the day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it would investigate allegations of crimes against humanity during his bloody war on drugs.

Duterte’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, said the president was unfazed when he was informed Wednesday of the court’s decision.

“The president didn’t have any reaction, because from the get go, he has said that he’ll die first before he faces any international courts,” Roque told reporters.

“If there are any complaints, they should file it here in the Philippines.”

The court on Wednesday said it had authorized an investigation requested by former prosecutor Fatou Bensouda into Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign, which it said could not “be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation.” 

More than 6,000 mostly poor drug suspects have been killed during the campaign, according to the government. But human rights groups say the death toll is considerably higher and should include many unsolved killings by motorcycle-riding gunmen who may have been deployed by police.

Duterte, who has cheered many of the deaths but denied condoning extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, is constitutionally prohibited from running for another term as president in elections next year.

Instead, he has announced he will run as vice-president in a manoeuvre critics have said is an attempt to both maintain power and insulate himself from the ICC investigation, which has been expected.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard said the ICC’s announcement comes at a “pivotal time” and that “human rights should be at the centre of discussions when the Philippines chooses its next leaders.”

“No one is above the law,” she said in a statement. “Duterte’s government must immediately end the cycle of killings, remove those involved from the ranks of the police and bring all those suspected of criminal responsibility to trial.”

Duterte lawyer hits back

Duterte’s chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, alleged that the Netherlands-based international court was being used “as a political and propaganda apparatus” by Duterte’s political opponents.

“While we expect that more theatrics will be employed by the detractors of the president as election season draws near, this blatant and brazen interference and assault on our sovereignty as an independent country by the ICC is condemnable,” he said in a written statement.

In her 57-page request, Bensouda argued that Duterte’s aggressive approach and bellicose rhetoric toward drug traffickers had already taken shape when he served as mayor of Davao City, before he was elected president in 2016.

Protesters hold a rally outside the Malacanang palace in Manila on June 30, calling for justice and accountability for the thousands who have died due to the government’s anti-drug crackdown under the Duterte administration. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

“Throughout his tenure as mayor, a central force of his efforts was fighting crime and drug use, earning him the nicknames ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Duterte Harry’ for the violent manner in which he sought to combat crime,” Bensouda wrote.

“On multiple occasions, Duterte publicly supported and encouraged the killing of petty criminals and drug dealers in Davao City.”

She dismissed the contention by Philippine authorities that deaths in the war on drugs resulted from police acting in self-defence, noting that “statements by some public officials suggest that they considered the killings an achievement and an integral component” of the campaign, and that they were encouraged by Duterte as president.

Duterte praised the increasing number of police killings as proof of the “success” of his “war on drugs,” she argued, adding that he made public statements encouraging security forces to kill drug suspects, regardless of the level of threat.

Court has no jurisdiction over non-members, lawyer argues

The investigation will look at killings that took place during some of the time Duterte was mayor, and during his time as president between July 1, 2016, and March 16, 2019, the date the Philippines withdrew from the court.

Panelo, the presidential legal counsel, argued that if the court wanted to investigate it should have done so while the Philippines was a member of the ICC, and that now it has no jurisdiction.

Last year, the court decided not to pursue an investigation into crimes allegedly committed by China against Uyghur and other minorities there, saying it did not have jurisdiction over non-members. The United States and Russia are other notable non-members of the ICC.

But Carlos Conde, senior Philippine researcher for Human Rights Watch, said by focusing on the years that the country was still a member of the court, the ICC is well within its rights to investigate Duterte’s actions.

He told reporters in Manila that Duterte’s run for vice-president does “not in any way afford him immunity from suit or investigation by the ICC.”

“He will of course try everything in his power to frustrate the ICC from doing its job and its mandate,” Conde said.

Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, seen at left during a campaign party in May 2019, replaced her father as mayor of Davao City. She said on Thursday that she would seek re-election as mayor, despite growing calls for her to run for the presidency instead. (Lean Daval/Reuters)

Daughter seeking re-election as mayor

Meanwhile, Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, said on Thursday that she would seek re-election as mayor of the southern city of Davao next year, despite growing calls for her to run for the presidency instead.

Duterte-Carpio, 43, who replaced her father as mayor, has topped every opinion poll on preferred candidates for the presidency.

“According to Mayor Sara, she will run for re-election as Davao City Mayor,” her spokesperson, Christina Frasco, said in a text message, adding her youngest brother, Sebastian Duterte, would run as vice-mayor.

The announcement is the latest in a series of mixed messages from Duterte-Carpio, which have ranged from declaring zero interest in the presidency to announcing names of top politicians approaching her with offers to be her running mate.

Duterte-Carpio, who is first lady in the Philippines due to her father’s annulled marriage, said last week she would not seek higher office.

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