A self-confessed hitman has told a Senate hearing in the Philippines that President Rodrigo Duterte was personally involved in a death squad while serving as mayor of the country’s third-largest city.
Testifying at an inquiry into a spate of extrajudicial killings in the country since Mr Duterte was elected president in May, Edgar Matobato said he had participated in about 50 murders after Mr Duterte ordered him and other members of a liquidation squad to kill criminals and opponents, including one grisly incident in 2007 when a victim was allegedly fed to a crocodile. “They were killed like chickens,” said Mr Matobato.
The explosive claims will add to growing concerns about Mr Duterte’s commitment to the rule of law. Since the new president launched his signature “war on drugs” campaign following his election in May, about 3,000 people have been killed — the majority at the hands of vigilante killers or death squads.
Mr Matobato also said that senator Leila De Lima — the chair of the inquiry and the country’s main opposition figure — was herself targeted by Mr Duterte in 2009 while she was investigating 1,000 or so extrajudicial murders in Davao.
Mr Matobato, who has been in a witness protection programme since surrendering seven years ago, also laid out in stark, often gruesome, detail how the bodies of the victims were hidden. Some were dumped at sea while others were burnt or chopped up and placed in unmarked graves.
A presidential spokesman denied the allegations, including claims from the former militiaman that Mr Duterte had personally gunned down a justice department official with an Uzi submachine gun.
“All citizens should maintain a sense of sobriety and maintain a sense of objectivity. I mean after all people do make statements everyday,” said Ernesto Abella.
Before his election as president, Mr Duterte ran Davao in southern Mindanao for more than 20 years. His hardline stance on law and order is widely credited with transforming the city from a hotbed of crime into a relative oasis of calm, and the city is frequently lauded by Filipinos for its secure environment. But the price was a glut of gangland killings.
“Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers,” said Mr Matobato under oath.
Mr Duterte’s role in these killings has long been the subject of speculation, fuelled in part by contradictory statements made by the president himself.
While officially denying links to militias, he told reporters last year that an Amnesty International report claiming he was responsible for the deaths of 700 had undershot the figure. The actual number was closer to 1,700, he said.
Mr Duterte’s ruthlessness while mayor of Davao earned him nicknames such as “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry” — after the Clint Eastwood films about a take-no-prisoners cop bent on cleaning up crime.
The latest campaign, however, has been criticised abroad, with the UN and a host of rights groups criticising the president for disregarding due process and human rights.
“The death squad culture in the Philippines has been firmly in place for a long time,” said one human rights campaigner who declined to be named due to security fears. “The human rights history of this country is just so sordid that it helped create this culture.”