After insisting that President Duterte’s drug war never violated human rights, the government admitted that 154 killings involving police officers were actually extra-judicial killings using the campaign against illegal drugs as an excuse.

An initial investigation found that 154 police officers could be criminally liable over their conduct in Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, in a rare admission by the state that abuses may have taken place.

The findings, announced by the Justice Sec. Menardo Guevarra came a few weeks after the International Criminal Court (ICC) approved a formal investigation into thousands of state killings of alleged drug dealers since Duterte took office in 2016.

The government had said it will not cooperate with an international probe because the Philippines has a justice system that is functioning.

Activists, however, say systematic cover-ups and executions of thousands of users and pushers have not been prosecuted. Police have denied wrong-doing and say the killings were in self-defense.

The review of these killings was part of Duterte’s commitment before the United Nations General Assembly 2021 that police officers responsible for murder would be held accountable.

The Police and Justice ministry reviewed 52 cases where suspects were killed in what police recorded as anti-narcotics operations. Those would be sent to state investigators for further action, Guevarra said.

He said 100 more cases would be looked at, which were pending preliminary investigation or under court trial.

Officially, 6,200 drug suspects were killed in what police said were sting operations when suspects resisted arrest.

Human rights activists believe thousands more, mostly users or small-time dealers, were killed in slum communities by mystery gunmen. Police have denied involvement in those deaths. 

Guevarra said, “The DoJ noted that based on the facts gathered by the PNP Internal Affairs Service, the police officers involved in these cases were not only administratively liable. The existing evidence pointed to their possible criminal liability as well.” 

If the NBI deems that the PNP-IAS findings are enough, the cases can proceed directly, but if more evidence is needed, the NBI will investigate further and build up the case.

Guevarra said one of the cases was not drug-related, and no death arose in another case, but they will still be subjected to case buildups.

In his speech during the 76th United Nations General Assembly, Duterte informed the body that the DoJ and the PNP were revisiting the government’s war on drugs amid mounting complaints from various sectors of society.

Data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency showed the death toll from the drug war reached the 6,000 mark as of December 2019. Since it started in 2016, when Duterte assumed the presidency, the campaign has led to the detention of 273,014 individuals.