Church Offers to Protect Police Who Testify on Philippines’ Drug War

Photo by Daniel Berehulak/nytimes.com

By Felipe Villamor/nytimes.com – The Roman Catholic Church has offered to protect police officers who want to come forward and testify about their participation in President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, a prominent archbishop said on Monday.

The protection offer could escalate an emerging clash between the church and the government.

More than 80 percent of the Philippine population is Catholic, and the church has long been a political force in the country. Since the killing of a 17-year-old boy by police officers in August, the church has led protests demanding accountability for the victims of Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign, which has left thousands dead at the hands of police officers or vigilantes.

In a pastoral letter, Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, president of the Catholic bishops conference in the Philippines, said officers had come forward with misgivings about their role in the war on drugs. “They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participation in extrajudicial killings and summary executions,” he wrote. “Their consciences are troubling them.”

The prelate said that the officers had approached church officials “to seek sanctuary, succor and protection” and that the church would listen to their statements. The church will also guide witnesses who want legal assistance to independent volunteer lawyers.

The church will not induce witnesses to testify, the pastoral letter said, but if witnesses “so decide or opt to identify themselves and to testify, every means must be provided for a fair, accurate and unconstrained or unrestrained testimony that may be used in evidence.”

Archbishop Villegas did not identify the officers. A church official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said they claimed to have taken part directly in Mr. Duterte’s drug crackdown.

That campaign has had widespread support in the Philippines since Mr. Duterte took office last year, but the death of the teenager, Kian Loyd delos Santos, in August has galvanized opposition to it. Catholic churches have been tolling their bells in a daily act of remembrance for those killed in the drug war.

The police said Mr. delos Santos had been armed and had fought with officers, but surveillance footage and other evidence contradict their account.

Two other teenagers were killed by the police soon after Mr. delos Santos was, and in the face of the outcry, Mr. Duterte has stopped making broad promises of impunity for officers who kill suspects while carrying out the campaign. He has said he will not lift a finger to protect a police officer who commits murder.

A survey released last week by a Philippine research institute, Social Weather Stations, found that more than half of Filipinos believed that many of those killed by the police during had not resisted arrest. The survey was taken before the killing of Mr. delos Santos.

On Monday, Archbishop Villegas said the church would not turn the officers over to the government if they preferred to avail themselves of the church’s protection — apparently referring to a dispute between the government and an opposition lawmaker over the custody of witnesses to Mr. delos Santos’s killing.

He also promised that the church would not seek to influence the officers. “If such law enforcers wish to testify, then the Catholic Church will see to it that they are in no way induced to speak, to disclose nor to make allegations by any member of the clergy or the hierarchy,” the archbishop wrote.

Testimony implicating Mr. Duterte in extrajudicial killings would not be unprecedented. Two men said in Senate testimony this year that they belonged to an assassination squad overseen by Mr. Duterte when he was a mayor in the southern Philippines.

Mr. Duterte was traveling in the southern Philippines on Monday and had no public response to the archbishop’s comments. The president has clashed with church leaders before, once referring to them as “sons of bitches.”

The church played a significant role in the downfall of two past Philippine leaders: Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and Joseph Estrada in 2001. But the demonstrations against Mr. Duterte have been much smaller, an indication of the extent to which his crackdown has a measure of popular support.

A spokesman for Mr. Duterte, Ernesto Abella, hit back Monday at what he called “self-styled watchdogs” of human rights. “We respect the rights of all, including the extremely critical, to freely express their opinion of the government,” he said, but added that the Philippines “will call out attempts to use it seemingly to advance certain interests” or political agendas.

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