DAMNING murder allegations against President Rodrigo Duterte by a self-confessed former Filipino hitman has sparked a media storm in the Philippines.
Left in its wake, however, are these still unanswered questions: Will these allegations trigger an independent probe? Who will conduct it?
The intrepid president himself has yet to come forward with answers although his men in the government have vehemently denied the accusations.
During Thursday’s Senate hearing on the recent spate of extrajudicial killings, former Davao Death Squad (DDS) member Edgar Matobato claimed Duterte had during his time as city mayor instigated the murder of over 1,000 people.
He claimed the man now facing international heat for nearly 3,000 drug-related deaths in the country had between 1988 and 2013 ordered the DDS to hunt down rival supporters, bomb a mosque, murder Muslims and set up an ambush to kill current Senator Leila De Lima after she ordered a probe into the crimes in 2009.
His account also offered gory details on how the killings were carried out and finished, with bodies buried in quarries, laden with blocks and dumped off boats, and in one case, fed to a crocodile.
Matobato’s credibility was immediately and unsurprisingly ripped apart by Duterte’s supporters in the government. Among others, inconsistencies in his stories were highlighted and the timing of his testimony questioned.
Senator Alan Peter Cayetano pointed out that Matobato, who was presented to the hearing as De Lima’s witness, had joined the Witness Protection Program in 2014. De Lima, now Duterte’s harshest critic and whose Senate committee on human rights is leading the ongoing inquiry, had been justice secretary at the time, so why did she not raise these allegations against Duterte then, Cayetano had asked.
But these arguments aside, some points have also been raised in Matobato’s defence.
As popular Filipino broadcaster, host and economist Solita Collas-Monsod asked in her opinion piece today: “Why choose a person with very little education (Grade 1 was his highest level) to be coached and planted as a false witness? If Matobato was coached, it must have taken a very long time to do it, because of his Grade 1 status”.
She noted that Matobato’s stories clearly showed that he was familiar with the Duterte family. Furthermore, she said, the persons he named during his testimony could easily be verified to prove his account true or false.
But there is one problem, Monsod said: “Who will do the investigating in Davao City? Can a team of independent investigators be formed who will not be trembling in their boots?”
The United States and international rights advocates are also demanding a probe on the Filipino president but they too insist that this must be conducted by independent investigators.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner was quoted in the AFP as saying: “These are serious allegations and we take them seriously, we will look into them.”
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said: “President Duterte can’t be expected to investigate himself, so it is crucial that the United Nations is called in to lead such an effort.
“Otherwise, Filipinos may never know if the president was directly responsible for extrajudicial killings.”
In an editorial titled “In the rabbit hole” on Saturday, popular English Language Philippine daily the Inquirer said Matobato’s claims should rightfully be looked into, regardless the circumstances surrounding the timing or conflicts found in his testimony.
“Surely Matobato’s allegations, by dint of their grave nature and the sheer preponderance of names, places, details and circumstances that he disclosed, deserve to be looked at—not just with seriousness but also with objectivity.
“The burden lies on the accuser, no matter how lopsided the setup may be in this case with an admittedly borderline-illiterate hitman ranged against the legal firepower of the administration,” the paper wrote.
However, as the Inquirer pointed out, while it is only fair that Duterte be presumed innocent until guilt is proven, the same courtesy had not been extended to the thousands of drug suspects killed so far in the president’s bloody war on drugs.
“Those killed so far in the war on drugs—the padyak drivers, the petty pushers in fraying flip-flops, the denizens of dark alleys yelling surrender—did not have the luxury of being afforded the same.
“And here Philippine society is today, in an ever-deepening rabbit hole of national cognitive dissonance,” the paper wrote.