Malacañang defended President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to the military to shoot and kill armed rebels during an encounter, saying this was legal under international humanitarian law.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government would probe the killings of nine people in a series of raids by security forces targeting alleged communist insurgents—but defended the use of deadly force when necessary.
"If your opponent has guns that can kill you, you wouldn't wait to get shot at and killed," he said.
At present, Roque said the government is dealing with the local communist armed conflict.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said Monday it has launched an investigation into the killings.
All the people killed or arrested in Sunday's coordinated operation near Manila were unarmed activists, the leftist group Bayan said.
But National Police chief Debold Sinas said the operation—involving police and military personnel—was staged in response to reports that the suspects were in the "illegal possession of firearms.”
Nine people were killed and 15 were arrested during the raids, he said.
The incident came two days after the President – whose controversial drug war has cost thousands of lives -- repeated an order for security forces to "ignore human rights" and kill communist rebels.
The CHR said it had dispatched a team to investigate the killings and arrests, as it urged the government to do the same.
"Activists are not necessarily terrorists and there should be a differentiation between those who take up arms and those who merely exercise their constitutional right to form and join associations, organizations as well as petition the government for redress of its grievances," spokeswoman Jacqueline de Guia said.
Hundreds of activists, journalists and lawyers have been killed since Duterte took power in 2016, rights groups say.
Many died after being accused of supporting the decades-old Maoist insurgency that the populist president has vowed to crush before the end of his six-year term in 2022.
Bayan said police had used "questionable search warrants" in Sunday's operation that targeted "legal activists" -- not members of communist terrorist groups as alleged by police.
One of its own coordinators in Cavite province, south of Manila, was among the dead, it added.
"A policeman makes a wild allegation that you are in possession of just one hand grenade and a judge will sign a search warrant that could lead to your arrest or death," said the group, which campaigns for workers, farmers and other marginalized sectors.
In his visit to Cagayan de Oro last Friday, the President told themilitary to “shoot-to-kill” alleged communist rebels if the situation called for it.
Duterte also denounced extortion and other atrocities committed by the communist rebels, calling them “bandits” without any ideology.
The President said he was prepared to go to jail over his latest directive to the troops to wipe out the armed insurgents.
However, Roque said that when there is war, according to international humanitarian law, there can be a fight and there might be deaths fromboth camps involved.
“Under IHL, the President’s order was correct. Kill, kill, kill because if there’s a fight and your enemy is armed and can kill you, you wouldn’t wait to be killed right?” Roque said.
“It is not against the law, the international humanitarian law when a soldier shoots an armed NPA fighter and kills the NPA fighter,” he added.
But Roque acknowledged that the deaths of the nine activists should be investigated because they were unarmed.
Col. Chit Gaoiran, spokesperson of the Police Regional Office-4A (Calabarzon) said the suspects engaged the raiding team in a gunfight which resulted in their killing. She said the reports from concerned offices were still being consolidated.
A total of 24 search warrants, all for illegal possession of firearms, were issued by the courts and were simultaneously served. Various firearms and explosives were confiscated during the raid, police said.
The leftist groups said the “evidence” was planted, however.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Monday said he was disappointed that the recent police operation over the weekend in Southern Luzon still resulted in the deaths, despite earlier recommendations made by the Inter-Agency review panel led by the Department of Justice for law enforcers to be careful in their operations.
“I was really hoping that with that statement I made before the United Nations, our law enforcers would be more careful in their operations,” Guevarra said when asked to comment on the killing of nine activists during separate operations conducted by the police.
“But these things continue to happen. So we really need to sit down with PNP (Philippine National Police), with the PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) and with other law enforcement to make sure that it would not happen so much like this,” he said.
Guevarra earlier informed the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that the DOJ-led review panel has taken action after finding irregularities over a number of illegal drugs operations where suspects were killed.
Senators assailed security forces for what they said were suspicious killings in raids over the weekend.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said when the Commander-in-Chief barks out an order, the commanders of the troops must dish out clear guidelines on how to carry out such anti-insurgency operations to make sure that they target only the armed combatants.
He noted that it goes without saying that the only legal justification to kill an adversary is in defense of oneself or another person.
“That said, it may not be proper to make premature conclusions and claims about the Calabarzon raids at this time, lest they affect the conduct of official investigations by the appropriate agencies,” Lacson, a former police chief, said.
Senator Leila M. de Lima said she doesn’t find it a coincidence that the massacre happened in the provinces under the jurisdiction of the AFP Southern Luzon Command, whose head is Lt. General Antonio Parlade, Jr., the poster boy of the Duterte regime’s brutal anti-insurgency campaign.
“And this happened while a Blue Mass for Police Officers in the Manila Cathedral was happening,” De Lima said.
For this regime, she said government critics, activists, and other truth-seekers can be, and are being branded as enemies of the state, making them targets of Duterte’s “kill, kill, kill” policy.
“We will not stop until these murderers are held accountable for their crimes,” she said.
De Lima said the killings occurred two days after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the security forces to “kill them all” and “ignore human rights.”
“Whether it’s drugs, insurgency, COVID-19 or poverty, he, indeed, governs through violence and killings,” she said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said he found the killings very disturbing.
“Every life is precious. Peace and order and not killings is the mandate of policemen. Many have been dying from typhoons, and other disasters and accidents. Let not the policemen be the cause of death of our people,” said Pangilinan.
He said condemnation and outrage would be an understatement over the fate that befell the victims.
“Have we become a nation of butchers of our fellow Filipinos? Is there no more respect and value for life, rights, and due process?” he said.
Pangilinan said that to prevent such obvious disregard for human life, the Philippine National Police (PNP) must use the P289-million body-worn cameras that it purchased in 2019.
Without body cameras, police can always claim the suspects shot first or resisted arrest.
Senator Risa Hontiveros said Southern Tagalog lost nine of its community organizers because of the administration’s high level of disrespect towards basic human rights.
“Labor and community organizers are not combatants. This cowardly crackdown deserves only the strongest condemnation,” she said.
She added that there is no denying that this scale of violence, injustice, and impunity is being perpetrated by the administration.
She said President’s recent televised threats of red tagging and outright murder are unbridled human rights violations that must be held to account.
She also called for a thorough investigation by the Commission on Human Rights.
Former Vice President Jejomqr Binay said the public should be alarmed by the series of killings on “Bloody Sunday.”
He said there are set procedures for serving warrants, but according to eyewitnesses, the police did not follow these rules.
“There are rules of engagement, but like many other instances, these were reportedly not observed by the police. And I am almost certain that the police would justify the killings by insisting that the victims fought back. That’s an old excuse,” he said.
In a democracy, he emphasized that there must always be room for legitimate dissent.
“But that room is narrowing with each passing day, and dissent is being equated to armed insurgency. It is imperative that our rights and freedoms remain protected, otherwise we might see the day when any criticism of government would be considered as a criminal act,” he said.
“We must end this wanton disregard for the rule of law and due process,” Binay said.
Human rights groups called on the government to investigate.
“These raids appear to be part of a coordinated plan by the authorities to raid, arrest, and even kill activists in their homes and offices," Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
These incidents, he said, were "clearly part of the government's increasingly brutal counter-insurgency campaign."
"The fundamental problem is (that) this campaign no longer makes any distinction between armed rebels and noncombatant activists, labor leaders, and rights defenders,” he added.
The CHR called on the government to combat impunity and demonstrate genuine adherence to the rule of law through the investigation of deaths and attacks against activists, and all other allegations of extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders.
“No perpetrator must be spared from the full force of law,” De Guia said.