President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to create his own armed civilian group called the “Duterte Death Squad” to counter communist assassins met with strong pushback from allies and critics alike, and drew a cautious reaction from his own Defense secretary.
In a speech Tuesday night at Camp Rajah Sikatuna in Bohol, Duterte referred to the Sparrow Units of the communist New People’s Army, which specialized in assassinations
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“Now what I don’t have is my own Sparrow,” the President said. “So I will create my own Sparrow. Duterte Death Squad against the Sparrow… I will match their talent also for assassinating people. They will have firearms for sure. That’s my plan.”
“They will do nothing but look for idlers who are prospective New People’s Army members and take them out,” he said.
The idea was immediately shot down by Duterte’s own political ally, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, president of the President’s ruling party, PDP-Laban.
“That cannot be done. I’m sure the President will not create such [a] squad,” Pimentel said.
Communist Party of the Philippines founding chairman Jose Ma. Sison said Duterte’s planned formation of a civilian hit squad was just to cover up his administration’s widespread use of summary executions.
“I think that Duterte is citing them [Sparrow] as a pretext for organizing more death squads of the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and PNP [Philippine National Police] for the mass murder of mere suspects who are not even the target of any court warrant of arrest,” Sison told an online news site. He added that the Sparrow Units, active during the martial law years, have not been operational since the 1980s.
Opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV said Duterte only wants to instill more fear in the hearts of Filipinos by warning there will be another round of extrajudicial killings.
“He is doing this because he feels that he is losing his grip on power and that fear is his only way to keep people check,” he said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said they will thoroughly study Duterte’s proposal and admitted that the plan could lead to cases of abuse.
“We will study it very closely. Who will compose it, who will supervise it, who will be the targets, who will be accountable? Because there is great danger of abuse or mistakes in these undercover operations,” Lorenzana said.
“One way to prevent this is for someone higher up to give the go-signal after careful and thorough vetting. There should not be a blanket authority,” he said.
Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde said he had yet to receive instructions from the President regarding the matter.
Senator Francis Pangilinan warned that Duterte’s death squad would turn the country into “a howling, lawless wilderness.”
“It will not create more jobs for the ordinary citizen. It will not lower the prices of basic goods. It will not increase incomes and wages of the worker. It will only turn our country into a howling, lawless wilderness,” he said.
Senator Gregorio Honasan said he believed that extreme situations call for extreme measures, but said these must be within the bounds of the law. But he said the formation of such a group was the President’s prerogative and a judgement call.
Senator Grace Poe said she needed to know the context of the President’s statement, but said the idea was “alarming.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson said it is up to the public to interpret if the President was serious or not when he made the statement.
“Being a lawyer and former prosecutor, I don’t think he was serious because he knows it’s illegal and criminal to do perform such an act,” he said.
The Commission on Human Rights denounced the idea, saying the principles of international humanitarian law strictly prohibit death squads “under all circumstances.”
The commission’s chairman, Jose Luis Gascon, said the law only allows the use of regular armed forces under “strict military discipline.”
Indigenous peoples from Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat in Mindanao also objected to the plan.
At a news conference in Quezon City, Dande Dinyan, chieftain of the Taboli-Manubo S’daf Claimants Organization (Tamasco), said the President’s plan could only lead to more violence and deaths of “helpless” people.