Philippine court finds four policemen guilty in drug war killings

By AFP   June 18, 2024 | 07:25 pm PT
Philippine court finds four policemen guilty in drug war killings
Mary Ann Domingo (R), holding portraits of her husband (R) and son (L), arrives with her supporters at a court in Manila on June 18, 2024. Photo by AFP
Four Philippine policemen were found guilty Tuesday of killing a father and son, court officials said, in a rare case of law enforcement officers being prosecuted for taking part in former president Rodrigo Duterte's deadly drug war.

The low-ranking officers were all sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for the shooting deaths of the two victims at a Manila slum during an anti-drug police operation in 2016, Manila regional trial court judge Rowena Alejandria said in her written verdict that was read in court Tuesday.

"It must be worthy to note that the accused themselves did not deny their presence and participation in the police operation conducted, the same event where the victims Luis and Gabriel were killed," Alejandria wrote.

Luis Bonifacio was 45 and his son Gabriel Bonifacio was 19 when they were killed.

Thousands of drug suspects were killed by police and unknown gunmen in a campaign that became the centerpiece of Duterte's 2016-2022 rule, a crackdown that critics described as state-sponsored extrajudicial killings and is now a subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court.

Luis Bonifacio's partner Mary Ann Domingo, cried on her son's shoulder as they listened to the verdict on two counts of homicide each being read at the cramped northern Manila courtroom.

She later told reporters that she felt the ruling showed "justice still exists."

"I hope these (convictions) will continue not just for me but for the other victims of extrajudicial killings," she added.

Manila policemen Virgilio Cervantes, Arnel de Guzman, Johnston Alacre and Artemio Saguros, who attended the court session wearing their blue police uniforms, were also ordered to pay 400,000 pesos ($6,820) each in damages to the victims' heirs.

The convicts were marched out of the courtroom without speaking to reporters.

The family has alleged more than a dozen police officers took part in the nighttime raid at the northern Manila slum community.

The family insisted the two were not involved in drugs and were unarmed when police opened fire.

The defendants pleaded self-defense, alleging the suspects were armed and had shot at them.

But state prosecutors went with the lesser charge of homicide against only four officers, instead of murder, which involves deliberate intent to kill and which carries a heavier penalty.

ICC investigation

"We are treating this as a partial victory because in all honesty, the case we filed against these policemen was murder and not homicide," the Domingo family lawyer Julian Oliva said.

Police said the crackdown left more than 6,000 people dead, but rights groups estimate tens of thousands of mostly poor men have been killed by officers and vigilantes, even without proof they were linked to drugs.

Duterte had openly ordered police to shoot dead suspects during anti-drug operations if officers believed their lives were in danger.

While the crackdown has been widely condemned and sparked an international investigation, only five other policemen have been convicted for killing drug suspects.

Three Manila police officers were convicted in 2018 of murdering a 17-year old boy in 2017. Two other narcotics police officers were found guilty last year for separate killings in 2016 and 2017, the latter victim a South Korean businessman.

Lawyers say most families are too scared to go after their relatives' killers or do not have the money or time to pursue a case in the Philippines' creaky judicial system.

"It shows how the impunity is taking place in our country," Oliva said.

The Philippine drug crackdown is being investigated by the International Criminal Court, which said in 2021 that it appeared "a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy."

Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the ICC effective in 2019, limiting the scope of the tribunal's probe.

President Ferdinand Marcos, who succeeded Duterte, has refused to cooperate in the ICC probe and taken no steps to restore Manila's membership, saying Manila has a functioning judicial system.

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