More mayoral murders

Anti-government demonstrators perform a street play depicting extra-judicial killings, during a protest to coincide with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's state of the nation address in Manila on 23 July, 2018. (Ted Aljibe / AFP Photo)

As the Philippines heads towards next year’s congressional and local elections, the assassinations of public officials may be on the rise again.

Alexander Buquing, mayor of Bangar in La Union province was killed by unknown gunmen on 1 October on his way home. His driver and a police officer were also killed while his wife – also his vice mayor – was injured.

Political killings have always occurred in the Philippines. A spate of shootings often precedes elections. Over 30 people were killed in the run-up to the 2016 elections; 22 candidates were killed in this year’s election of village officials.

However, the rate of killings increased after President Rodrigo Duterte declared a war on drugs and openly encouraged killings in 2016. He publicly accused 158 officials of involvement in narcotics and the government published a narco-list of 207 officials ahead of next year’s congressional and local elections.

On 5 September, mayor Mariano Blanco III of Ronda, Cebu was shot in his office and became the 11th mayor to be killed. Blanco had been sleeping in his office after his name was announced on the narco-list. His nephew and vice mayor, Jonah John Ungab, was killed in February.

Buquing, the 12th mayor to be killed, was not linked to illegal drugs, said the Philippines’ national police spokesman, Chief Superintendent Benigno Durana.

Source: Various sources

Opposition senator Antonio Trillanes, one of Duterte’s fiercest critics, dubbed his country “the murder capital of Asia.” Trillanes currently faces the prospect of imprisonment after Duterte voided an amnesty granted to him in 2011.

Trillanes was a former navy junior officer who was involved in attempts to overthrow the government in 2003, 2006 and 2007. Although the Philippines’ Armed Forces chief confirmed that Trillanes applied for and received an amnesty, the President’s office insisted that no such application for amnesty was to be found in government records.

Another Duterte critic, senator Leila de Lima was jailed on drug-related charges based on a questionable affidavit by mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. After signing the affidavit and while awaiting trial, Espinosa was shot dead for resisting a search of his jail cell.

Speaking out

The latest killing found a new critic in opposition senator, Bam Aquino, cousin of the Philippines’ previous president, Benigno Aquino III. “The killings of local leaders underscore the growing culture of impunity and escalating violence that threatens to permeate Philippine society today,” he said in a statement.

He added that the government needs to investigate these killings to assure all Filipinos that it is capable of maintaining peace and order and protecting their lives.

Duterte faces external pressure as well for his stance on extra-judicial killings. In March, he stopped the Philippines from being party to the Rome Statute after the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced its decision to carry out investigations into the extra-judicial killings and the role Duterte is alleged to have played in them.

At the start of his war on drugs, Duterte famously said he was pleased to be called a cousin of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and would “be happy” to exterminate three million drug users and peddlers in the country. He subsequently apologised.

His tune and tone changed significantly in early September after visiting Israel’s national Holocaust museum. “I could not imagine a country obeying an insane leader and I could not ever fathom the spectacle of a human being going into a killing spree, murdering old men, women and children,” he said. “Despots and leaders who show insanity, they should be disposed of at the first instance.”

The International People’s Tribunal (IPT) in Belgium recently declared Duterte guilty of “gross and systematic violations of human rights” in the Philippines, which included extra-judicial killings, violence against women and attacks on press freedom.

The IPT is a global court convened by human rights activists, lawyers, jurists and academics. Its verdicts are submitted to the ICC, United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the European Parliament and other international organisations.

The presidential office dismissed the IPT’s verdict as a “sham” and accused it of spreading propaganda. Strangely, Duterte made an unusual confession in a speech at a recent oath-taking ceremony in Manila.

“What is my sin? Did I steal money, even just one peso? Did I prosecute somebody I sent to jail? My only sin is extra-judicial killings,” he reportedly said.

He also condemned the ICC. The ICC announced that it retained jurisdiction “over crimes committed during the time in which the state was party to the Rome Statute.” In short, the ICC can still investigate and prosecute Duterte for past crimes.

With growing condemnation from within and outside the country, it is hoped that Duterte will put a stop to the senseless killings in the Philippines.

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