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International Criminal Court prosecutor requests probe into Philippines killings

THE HAGUE -The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court asked it on Monday for authorization to open a full investigation into drug war killings in the Philippines, saying crimes against humanity could have been committed.

According to Philippines government data, from the time President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016 until the end of April this year, security forces killed 6,117 drug dealers in sting operations.

Rights groups say authorities have summarily executed drug suspects, but police say drug dealers fought back violently.

"I announce that the preliminary examination into the situation in the Republic of the Philippines has concluded and that I have requested judicial authorization to proceed with an investigation," prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement.

"As I stated in December 2019, at the annual session of the Assembly of States Parties, before I end my term as Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court ("ICC" or the "Court"), I intend to reach determinations on all situations that have been under preliminary examination during my tenure, as far as I am able to do so in accordance with my obligations under the Rome Statute. In that statement, I also indicated the high likelihood that several preliminary examinations would progress to the investigative stage," she added.

In an address recorded this week before the news of Bensouda's request broke, Duterte called on human rights organizations to take a closer look into his war on drugs.

"You would notice that there are really persons who die almost daily because they fought back," he said, warning drug dealers: "Do not destroy the country. I will kill you."

The Philippines' Department of Justice declined to comment on the announcement from the ICC in The Hague.

Bensouda said the Philippines has been under preliminary investigation since the 8th of February 2018 and that her office has been working on publicly available information as well as information provided under article 15 of the Statute.

"On the basis of that work, I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed on the territory of the Philippines between 1 July 2016 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the Government of Philippines "war on drugs" campaign," she said.

She underscored that her office "does not take a position on any government's internal policies and initiatives intended to address the production, distribution and consumption of psychoactive substances within the parameters of the law and due process of law, and in the present case, it is duly acting strictly in accordance with its specific and clearly defined mandate and obligations under the Statute."

The findings showed, after a thorough preliminary examination process, and based on available information that "members of the Philippine National Police, and others acting in concert with them, have unlawfully killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians during that time."

On allegations of torture and other inhumane acts and related events "as early as 1 November 2011, the beginning of the Court's jurisdiction in the Philippines, all of which we believe require investigation."

Human rights groups accuse Duterte of inciting deadly violence and say police have murdered unarmed suspects and staged crime scenes on a massive scale. Police deny this and Duterte insists he told police to kill only in self-defence.

Under the ICC statute, the prosecutor must ask judges for permission to open an official investigation into alleged crimes.

The tribunal's judges have up to four months to issue a decision on such a request.

The ICC, Bensouda said, despite the withdrawal of the Philippines still has jurisdiction over the crimes committed in the country.

"Although the withdrawal of the Philippines from the Rome Statute of the ICC took effect on 17 March 2019, as the Court has previously found in the context of the Burundi situation, the Court retains jurisdiction over crimes that are alleged to have occurred on the territory of that State during the period when it was a State Party to the Rome Statute. Moreover, these crimes are not subject to any statute of limitation," she said.

The term of Bensouda as ICC prosecutor is coming to an end, she says. But she remains optimistic the investigation will continue.

"Any authorised investigation in the Philippines will fall to my able successor, Mr Karim Khan, to take forward. In this context, it is clear that how the Office, under his leadership, will set priorities concerning this investigation will need to take into account the operational challenges arising from the continuing pandemic, the severe limitations on the ICC's available resources, and the Office's current heavy work commitments," she said.  -- BAP, GMA News with Reuters