Relatives of the victims of the bloody war on drugs are waiting with bated breath for the International Criminal Court’s next course of action: Will it try Rodrigo Duterte anytime soon? 

There has been no word from the ICC since speculations swirled about the former Philippine president’s impending arrest following the reported arrival of ICC investigators in the country in December last year. 

“The widows and mothers would like Duterte tried. They have been longing for justice all this time,’’ said Danny Pilario, a Vincentian priest who helped orphans and widows of some slain drug suspects in Quezon City cope with trauma.  

Human rights lawyer Kristina Conti, counsel of the families of drug war victims, said ICC's decisions are hard to predict because its actions are highly compartmentalized. 

What is clear from the recent developments, though, is that they have strong evidence to begin a trial, she told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). “What we are asking is not even conviction. We just want the trial to start."  


TOP PHOTO: Families of drug war victims from Rise Up for Life and for Rights join the protest commemorating Human Rights Day in Quezon City on December 10, 2021. Photo by Raffy Lerma


Duterte and several others are facing crimes against humanity case at the international tribunal court in The Hague over the brutal campaign on drugs that left thousands dead.   

In May 2017, lawyer Jude Jose Sabio asked the international court to charge Duterte and 11 other officials with mass murder and crimes against humanity over the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the conduct of the anti-drug campaign. 

Former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who filed a supplemental communication asking ICC to investigate Duterte, claimed in January that he received information that ICC probers flew to Manila in December to conduct an investigation of the principal accused.

He also said that the former president maybe ordered arrested within the first half of 2024.

There was no confirmation about the visit or Duterte’s impending arrest from either the ICC or the Department of Justice. Duterte had information he could be ordered arrested any time, his former spokesperson Harry Roque said in February.  

At present, there are 53 communications filed with the ICC seeking redress for crimes committed in connection with the drug war, according to Conti. Communication is the international court’s term for complaint.  


NANLABAN. A .38-caliber revolver lies beside a lifeless drug suspect killed in an alleged shootout with police in Manila. Photo by Raffy Lerma


 ‘It’s complicated’ 


Conti, an ICC-accredited lawyer, explained to the PCIJ the procedures if and when the international court issues a warrant for the former leader. 

This may take the form of either an arrest warrant or a pre-indictment warrant, she said. An arrest warrant is issued when there is a case and the accused is set to stand trial.

The pre-indictment warrant “is to ensure the appearance of the accused” before a trial begins, said Neri Colmenares, a lawyer who represents drug war victims in Philippine courts.

This happens when the court sees a “conscious and blatant effort to destroy evidence” needed to hold a person accountable, he said.

Once out, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) will serve the warrant, according to Conti. The Philippine is among 196 member-countries of the body.  


KIAN. A day before his fifth death anniversary, the remains of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos were exhumed at the La Loma Cemetery on August 15, 2022. It was then brought to the University of the Philippines Manila for re-examination by forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun.


DR. FORTUN. Forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun re-examines the human skeletal remains of a drug war victim in a makeshift morgue at the University of the Philippines Manila on September 16, 2021. Photo by Raffy Lerma.


Any law enforcement agency in the country can do it “technically speaking.’’ But under ICC rules, the Philippine National Police (PNP) will take the lead in serving the warrant, she said. 

The PNP had indicated it would not enforce a warrant for Duterte from the ICC, apparently taking its cue from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who declared the government would “not lift a finger’’ to help the ICC investigation.  

Mr. Marcos said he does not recognize ICC’s jurisdiction in the Philippines, echoing assertions by Duterte and his camp. The Philippines withdrew from the Rome Statute, the ICC’s legal foundation, in 2018. This took effect a year later. 

In 2021, ICC opened its investigation of killings committed before the withdrawal. In January 2023, the court decided to allow the reopening of the inquiry into the war on drugs and denied the Philippines’ appeal against it. 

The national police acknowledged that more than 6,000 were killed in the drug war but the Commission on Human Rights groups said the death toll could go as high as 27,000. As of November last year, 50 of the 6,000 deaths were investigated, three of which were successfully prosecuted, the government said.  


JEMBOY. Overseas Filipino Worker, Rodaliza Baltazar, grieves for her 17-year-old son, Jemboy, through a video call from Qatar during the wake at Barangay NBBS, Navotas City, on Aug.7, 2023. Photo by Raffy Lerma.


Families of drug war victims from Rise Up for Life and for Rights celebrate following the International Criminal Court’s decision to resume its investigation into former President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in Quezon City on July 18, 2023. Photo by Raffy Lerma


If the National Bureau of Investigation decides to serve the warrant, it is required to turn Duterte over to the national police, Conti said.  

“This is a bit complicated because the PNP is complicit in the crime. They should be arrested,” Conti said, referring to the national police’s role as the chief implementor of the drug war.  

The Department of Foreign Affairs, as the country’s official representative, will be informed of the issuance of the warrant.  

But since it withdrew from ICC, the Philippines government may serve or sit on the warrant.  “We’re no longer a member, that is the problem. The Philippine government may choose to ignore it,’’ Conti said.


 ‘Huwag tularan’ 


Member-countries are obliged to serve the warrant or the court may ask them to explain why they refused. This means that if Duterte flies to another ICC-member state, that nation must surrender him to the international court in The Hague, she said.

The ICC can also coordinate with Interpol, which may issue a red notice to notify member-states that a fugitive is under their jurisdiction, Conti said.

A red notice is a request to law enforcers worldwide “to locate and provisionally arrest’’ a person pending extradition, surrender or any other similar action, according to Interpol.  

If at all, Duterte will be represented by an ICC-accredited lawyer. He will be detained at the ICC headquarters in The Hague, where the trial will be held. He will be locked up in a spacious detention facility that adheres to international standards in terms of size, food, and visitation, Conti said. 

The court will ensure that he is not in solitary confinement, a system that is considered a form of torture. The court may even pay for a once-a-year family visit to ensure that the former president remains in touch with them, she said.

“He will be given due process. And not just due process by Philippine standards, but the due process by international standards,” the human rights lawyer said.

Filipinos should not expect ICC to release mugshots of Duterte, the way the police do of crime suspects. “They have high standards,’’ she added.  


Paghilom Children's Camp. Orphans and children affected by the violence of the war on drugs are reflected on a fish pond during a summer camp held in Candaba, Pampanga, in August of 2023. The camp was organized by the church-based group Program Paghilom, which assists families of drug war victims in coping with the loss of their loved ones during the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. Photo by Raffy Lerma


Only ICC-accredited lawyers, such as Conti and Harry Roque, are allowed to represent a victim or a respondent once the trial begins.

“A warrant signifies that there is a strong case,’’ said Colmenares, a colleague of Conti’s at the National Union of People’s Lawyers, pointing out that Duterte would be the first former Asian leader to be ordered arrested by the ICC if ever.

For Trillanes, it can be some sort of poetic justice.

“Siya ngayon ang ‘wag tularan’ (Now it’s his turn to be tagged ‘Don’t emulate me’,’’ he said, referring to placards placed beside bodies of drug suspects that carried the derisive tag. “That should disabuse him of the mindset that you can kill people.’’

The number of Filipinos supporting the ICC investigation of the drug killings on Duterte’s watch grew from 45 percent in March 2023 to 53 percent in December 2023, based on surveys by the Social Weather Station. END


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