Sarah lost her sons in the Philippine drug war. Will she ever see justice?

For grieving mother Sarah Celise, the pain of losing her two sons to the drug war in the Philippines five years ago is still heavy.
In February 2017, she was awakened by the news that her 32-year-old son Almon had been shot dead by police during a roundup of suspected drug dealers. She says a witness later told her that he was unarmed and surrendered, but the police shot him anyway.
Almon died in the hospital from bullet wounds to the head and chest.
Less than six months later, she said, his younger brother Dikli, 30, also disappeared after voluntarily getting into a police car. His body was found in an alley a few weeks later.

“His friend told me: “Aunt, hurry up, come to your son.” A plastic bag was wrapped around his head. Kind of a bag. They put a black bag over his head,” says Ms. Celise.

Group of people with placards

People hold portraits of relatives allegedly killed by police during anti-drug raids in Manila in 2017. Credit: Author AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Manila-based lawyer Cristina Conti remembers June 2016 well, the early days of then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterete and the start of his so-called war on drugs.

“Before, people were just found dead in the alleys, in the canals,” she says.

“Bound, bandaged with duct tape, sometimes with signs “I am a drug dealer, do not follow me.”

Christina Conti standing in front of a fresco

Lawyer Cristina Conti fights for justice for the victims of the Philippine drug war. Source: SBS news

Mr. Duterte came to power six years ago on a promise to wage war on drug traffickers and their clients. More than 6,200 people have been killed so far, according to official government figures, but human rights groups say the real number could be tens of thousands more.

Miss Conti works hard trying to bring justice to the dead. Her job is to bring as many individual police officers to trial as possible to face murder charges. But this is a monumental task.

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During his tenure as president, Duterte defended both the police and his policies, referring to those killed as drug dealers who resisted arrest, and frequently stated that the police could kill if they felt they were in danger, and that he would pardon anyone who turned out to be in prison. .
In the Philippines, only three police officers have ever been charged with involvement in drug war killings.

The war on drugs has hit the Philippines’ poorest urban areas hardest, among people Ms. Conti calls “ideal victims.”

Rodrigo Duterte, in a cream shirt, stands next to the pulpit.

Rodrigo Duterte has consistently defended his war on drugs. Credit: Ezra Akayan/Getty Images

“They are powerless not only in terms of financial resources and education, they are powerless in terms of connections and how to achieve responsibility,” she says.

“Regardless of whether they were involved in the drug trade, they blame themselves. It’s all perfect for this type of politics.”

Whether they were involved in the drug trade or not, they blame themselves. It’s all perfect for this type of policy.

Christina Conti, lawyer

Ms. Conti provides legal assistance to Rise for Life and Rights, a Manila-based non-governmental organization that began by helping victims of the war on drugs organize funerals.

The families then started asking us if we could look at the death certificates, whatever papers they had, to see if they could go to court. They all want justice, and for some, that means cops being charged with murder,” she says.

Priest consoles a woman sitting on a church pew and holding an urn

Father Flavi Villanueva, who has been accused of sedition for criticizing Duterte’s war on drugs, comforted family members of the victims. Women hold urns with ashes taken from graves. Credit: JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

Ms. Conti’s work begins with collecting evidence for the prosecution, collecting death certificates to prove that the person died an unnatural death, and, where possible, police incident reports stating what happened.

But the process is hampered by a lack of documentation, with the Philippine National Police and other agencies saying they were acting in self-defense, conducting legitimate operations.
Adding to these difficulties is that witnesses to murders are often too afraid to talk about what they have seen.

“The problem is that when Duterte was president, he was in a sense the king of the Philippines. People were afraid and many were hopeless, they said, “Even if I give you my statement, what hope do you have of getting convicted?” Ms. Conti says.

Cemetery with stacked graves

Stacked graves are common in cemeteries serving the poor in the Philippines. The typical contract is a five-year lease, which many families cannot afford to renew more than once. Credit: The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Im

Even before a case is heard by a court in the Philippines, there must be a pre-assessment stage in which a prosecutor or government lawyer from the Philippine Ombudsman’s Office evaluates a case before it can move forward.

Of the 200 cases that Ms. Conti’s organization evaluated for possible prosecution, only six had enough supporting evidence and documentation to reach this preliminary stage, and only three had enough to pass it.

“When you go to court, the police come with a different story. They say it was a drug bust, a legal operation, and the man fired first. They were killed in a legitimate operation,” she says.

“It is very difficult for us because we are only allowed to build a case against a specific officer who pulled the trigger. In our opinion, the courts in the Philippines do not adequately address the concept of command responsibility and collusion in these cases.

“These are deliberate killings.”

‘Crimes against humanity’

Duterte ended his six-year presidential term this week. His replacement, which, despite the assassinations, remains a popular policy among many Filipinos.
Mr. Duterte’s daughter, Sarah Duterte, became the vice president of the country.
At the request of Mr. Duterte’s government and against the wishes of Philippine human rights lawyers, the International Criminal Court (ICC) last year suspended its own investigation into drug war-related killings, instead allowing the administration to investigate them on its own.
When Mr. Duterete resigned, the ICC almost admitted that it was a mistake and said it planned to reopen the case as soon as possible.

“The Philippine government, with a few exceptions, has not provided any documentation to show that investigations are ongoing or completed, or any details of specific investigative or prosecutorial actions,” ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said in a statement.

A woman sits on a couch with pictures of her sons.

Sara Celise’s sons Almon (left) and Dikli were killed in the so-called war on drugs.

Mr. Duterte’s spokesman defended his own investigation into the killings and said the ICC should respect Philippine sovereignty.

For lawyers like Ms. Conti, indicting Mr. Duterte for crimes against humanity is necessary to ensure full accountability for the war on drugs.
The ICC investigation is so far the only one of its kind in the Philippines and beyond. In the Philippines, prosecutions tended to focus on individual police officers who committed specific murders,” she says.

“But there was no investigation, no prosecution of the massacres, no actual investigation of the policy itself.

Philippines drug war

Exhibition at the Silingan Cafe in Quezon City, Manila. Credit: JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

“The ICC is the best way to prosecute crimes against humanity.”

She hopes Mr. Duterte will eventually stand trial, or at least the ICC will issue a warrant for his arrest, which will bring some justice to grieving mothers like Sara Celise, one of the many who couldn’t find him locally. court.

“This is what the police told me about my sons; that I can’t go to court because I don’t have any evidence. I don’t have any proof.”