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Top Philippine court orders release of drug war death files

Priests, rights lawyers said access to documents on killings is first step towards justice for victims

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Published: April 03, 2019 08:12 AM GMT

Updated: April 03, 2019 08:16 AM GMT

Top Philippine court orders release of drug war death files

University students in Manila hold a demonstration to call for an end to the spate of killings of suspected drug users and peddlers in the Philippines. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

Human rights groups welcomed a Philippine Supreme Court order calling for the release of documents related to the killings of thousands of suspected drug users and dealers over the past three years.

The court on April 2 ordered the solicitor-general to provide police reports to two human rights groups seeking the release of the documents.

Both the Free Legal Assistance Group and the Center for International Law had earlier asked the Supreme Court for the release of documents on cases the law groups were handling.

The Office of the Solicitor-General had agreed to release the police documents to the court but rejected the law groups’ requests, arguing that it would undermine law enforcement and national security.

After holding public deliberations on the petitions in 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the solicitor-general to submit documents, including a list of people killed in police drug raids.

The justices have yet to rule on a separate petition calling on the court to declare Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign unconstitutional.

Carmelite priest Gilbert Billena, whose parish has witnessed the killing of at least 38 suspected drug users, welcomed the court decision.

"In a climate of violence and impunity it is important that the rule of law prevails," said the priest. "It’s a long fight ahead, but this is a step forward in the search for truth and justice," he added.

Father Danilo Pilario, a Vincentian missionary priest who works in an urban poor community in Manila, said victims’ families would now have the chance to get to the truth.

"Now is the time for them to know how the police 'constructed' the circumstances surrounding the deaths [of their loved ones]," said the priest.

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"This is one step toward their desire to seek justice," he told ucanews.com.

In a statement, the Center for International Law said the documents were the "first step towards the long road to justice for the petitioners and to thousands of victims of the 'war on drugs' and their families."

"This is an emphatic statement by the highest court of the land that it will not allow the rule of law to be trampled upon in the war on drugs. It’s a very important decision," added the group.

"It’s a big step forward for transparency and accountability," said lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, head of the Free Legal Assistance Group.

He said the police documents could help lawyers look into the police actions conducted immediately after Duterte came to power in mid-2016.

Authorities have admitted that a total of 5,176 "drug personalities" were killed in anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016 to Jan. 31, 2019.

Police claim many of those who died fought back and endangered law enforcers.

Human rights groups, however, say about 30,000 suspected drug users and dealers have been killed in what authorities described as "deaths under investigation."

Diokno, however, said the court decision was only "one victory on the many fronts of struggle to halt the killings."

"The most important thing is for the killings to stop," he said.

Marissa Lazaro, whose son, Christopher, was killed by police on Aug. 5, 2017, recounted how she spent money and time before getting police records almost a year after his death.

She said police justified the delay, saying that she would only use them against law enforcers.

"Every day we are deprived of these documents only heightens our grief and anger," she said.

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