The announcement was hailed as a “very significant milestone in the government’s efforts to exact accountability” by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who heads a panel reviewing killings related to the drug war.
However, last Tuesday, President Duterte dampened the initial positive expectations when he said, in a televised public address, that the government cannot release all the case records because of “national security”considerations. Not only did his remarks dash cold water on the hopes of premature optimists. They also have given rise to more questions, not the least about the Chief Executive’s official demeanor concerning what the Supreme Court has referred to in a ruling as “a matter of grave public concern.”
On April 3, 2018, the SC ruled favorably on two petitions urging it to direct the PNP to give the petitioners access to the case files of persons killed in the drug-war operations. Representing the PNP, Solicitor General Jose Calida opposed the petitions on the ground of “national security.” Denying his objection, the ruling stated:
“There is no showing that the country’s territorial integrity, national sovereignty, independence or foreign relations will be compromised or prejudiced by the release of these information and documents to this Court or even to the public.
“The information and documents do not involve rebellion, invasion, terrorism, espionage, infringement of our sovereignty or sovereign rights by foreign powers, or any military, diplomatic or state secret involving national security.”
By the above-quoted part of the ruling, the SC delineated the various factors for consideration when one invokes the precept of national security. It rebuked Calida by stating:
“It is simply ridiculous to claim that these information and documents on police operations against drug pushers or users involve national security matters so sensitive that even this Court cannot peruse [them] in deciding constitutional issues affecting the fundamental rights to life and liberty of thousands of ordinary citizens.
“The undeniable fact that thousands of ordinary citizens have been killed, and continue to be killed, during police drug operations certainly is a matter of grave public concern.”
The ruling concludes: “If this Court cannot obtain the regularly-prepared information from the [Solicitor General’s Office] as well as from the rest of the respondents [the PNP], by what other means can ordinary citizens get information about their relatives who were killed during anti-drug operations of the police?”
Has any of Duterte’s advisers reckoned with and apprised him of this important ruling?
Secretary Guevarra’s initial reaction: “We’ll take note of the President’s concern and we’ll keep that in our mind as we examine each and every case folder that we’ll get into our hands.”
On his part, Eleazar has submitted to the DOJ records of only 53 police operations (out of the 61 he had initially mentioned, plus others the DOJ might request), saying, “At least they already have copies of what they wish to review, and it’s up to them to match them against their records.”
Guevarra later sought to allay the negative impact of Duterte’s remarks on the conduct and prospect of the DOJ-led panel review that he had informed the United Nations would be accomplished.
Since the panel began the review, Guevarra said Duterte had not intervened nor called his attention concerning efforts to determine if there were extrajudicial killings. “I spoke about the drug war review last year before the [UN], he didn’t say anything to restrain me,” he pointed out. Subsequently, he submitted an initial report to the President and spoke again before the [UN] Human Rights Council last February, wherein he acknowledged “certain lapses in police operations.” In both instances, he added, Duterte raised no objection.
The President, he surmised, might have been hesitant to release data on the network of drug syndicates, their protectors and financiers, foreign suppliers and other classified information, The STAR reported yesterday. But would such disclosure infringe on national security?
To make an evaluation of Duterte’s words and actions (or inactions) it’s important to know what he actually said. Per The STAR report, he said the following:
“We have records (of) those who have died, who have derogatory records in our files. It contains references about persons and what they do. We cannot divulge it to anybody but only to the military and the police.
“I am just result-oriented. I told the police or the military who perform their duties and had to kill their adversaries, especially those related to drugs and even the NPA (New People’s Army), we cannot give everything… You can query as to how the battle was fought, how the gunfight started. But when you talked about what prompted the police and the military to go into this kind of operation based on their reports and collated dossiers, you cannot touch on that…”
“I never asked about those things. It’s because I know that it’s just confidential. And if they do not present it to me, I do not ask for it,” Duterte disclosed.
Moreover, he said that government security forces would inform him (presumably as commander-in-chief) about “big personalities” targeted for arrest (the security forces’ duty). He bluntly stated, however, that the location and the manner by which these persons would be arrested are “none of my business really as President.”
Disturbing, to say the least, is Duterte’s acknowledgement that he never asks for the submission of “confidential” information justifying a planned military or police operation, and that it’s not his duty as President to inquire into the manner of arresting “big personalities.”
It shows an utter lack of rigor in the exercise of his duties as commander-in-chief, for instance, to vet intelligence information. It also indicates how lightly, if at all, he regards his oath of office to “faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man and consecrate myself to the service of the Nation.”
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Published in The Philippine Star
June 5, 2021