In the rabbit hole
As allegations go, the ones made by confessed hitman Edgar Matobato at the Senate hearing last Thursday are extremely serious. Claiming to be a former member of the so-called Davao Death Squad, Matobato accused President Duterte of carrying out or instigating heinous crimes when he was mayor of Davao City.
These activities supposedly involved kidnapping, murder, terrorism, attempted assassination. The most widely reported case Matobato brought up was that of broadcast journalist Jun Pala, a vocal critic of Mr. Duterte whom the mayor allegedly ordered killed. From 1988 to 2013, said Matobato, he and other DDS members killed more than 1,000 persons, who were buried in quarries, dumped on roadsides, or, in one case, fed to a crocodile.
It would take some time, if at all, to verify these allegations. Even during his incumbency as mayor, Mr. Duterte routinely dismissed and refused to cooperate with outside observers such as Human Rights Watch and the Commission on Human Rights which had tried, without much success, not only to get to the bottom of the killings but also to persuade witnesses and survivors to talk publicly about what they knew. A few brave souls spoke before a camera, such as the mother of three minors reportedly rounded up and summarily killed.
However, not one case was filed in court. Mr. Duterte has denied responsibility for the alleged mass killings, while claiming credit for the street cleansing that made Davao a showcase city. But he is a voluble man, and on a number of occasions he had no qualms about advocating killing. Last May at his miting de avance, he said: “If I make it to Malacañang, I will just do what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”
A year earlier, in May 2015, he directly associated himself with the Davao killings, saying in an interview on his regular local TV program: “They say I am the death squad? True, that is true.” And, just last Aug. 31, with the extrajudicial killing of alleged drug users and pushers in full swing, he appeared to sanction the bloodbath with this statement about the difficulties of rehabilitating junkies, spoken before members of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption: “Where do I get the billions [of pesos]? My budget is only this much… That’s why in the meantime you have them killed.”
These are startling statements, staggering in their import. But none has dented the President’s popularity, much less led to any serious inquiry into the nature of the killings—now about 3,000—during his watch. Will Matobato’s allegations bring about a change? The Philippines is chafing under the searching gaze of the international community.
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.
Caution and skepticism are required in weighing the allegations and whatever evidence may be gathered in their wake. As many of the President’s supporters were quick to say, not one of these incendiary claims is worth anything until it is proven true in court—until the proper charges are filed and due investigation is made. Until then, the President enjoys the presumption of innocence, as he must.
But herein lies the central paradox of our times: The demand for fairness and due process is quickly made when it applies to the powers that be; there is no question, of course, that they deserve it. 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.
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