Ex-militiaman tells Philippines senate, “I was in Duterte’s death squad”

Televised senate hearing is told that president Duterte allegedly ordered murder of criminals and opponents when he was mayor of Davao.
Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed former hitman, holds up a roll of tape of the type he claims he used on his victims, during a September 15, 2016, senate hearing on drug-related extrajudicial killings, in Pasay city  Metro Manila, Philippines. Ezra Acayan / Reuters
Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed former hitman, holds up a roll of tape of the type he claims he used on his victims, during a September 15, 2016, senate hearing on drug-related extrajudicial killings, in Pasay city Metro Manila, Philippines. Ezra Acayan / Reuters

MANILA // A former Filipino militiaman on Thursday testified before the country’s senate that president Rodrigo Duterte, when he was still a city mayor, ordered him and other members of a murder squad to kill criminals and opponents in attacks that left about 1,000 dead.

Edgar Matobato, 57, told the nationally televised senate committee hearing that he heard Mr Duterte order some of the killings, and admitted carrying out about 50 attacks himself, including feeding a suspected kidnapper to a crocodile in 2007 in southern Davao del Sur province.

Rights groups have long accused Mr Duterte of involvement in death squads while he was mayor of Davao city. He has denied these claims, even while engaging in tough talk in which he stated his approach to criminals was to “kill them all”. Mr Matobato is the first person to admit any role in such killings, and to directly implicate Mr Duterte under oath in a public hearing.

The senate committee inquiry was led by senator Leila de Lima, a critic of Mr Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that has left more than 3,000 suspected drug users and dealers dead since he assumed the presidency in June. Mr Duterte has accused Ms de Lima of involvement in illegal drugs, alleging that she used to have a driver who took money from detained drug lords. She has denied the allegations.

Mr Matobato said Mr Duterte had once even issued an order to kill Ms de Lima, when she chaired the country’s commission on human rights and was investigating the mayor’s possible role in extrajudicial killings in 2009 in Davao. He said he and others were waiting to ambush Ms de Lima but she did not go to a part of a hilly area – a suspected mass grave – where they were waiting to open fire.

“If you went inside the upper portion, we were already in ambush position,” Mr Matobato told Ms de Lima. “It’s good that you left.”

The recent killings of suspected drug dealers have sparked concerns in the Philippines and among UN and US officials, including president Barack Obama, who have urged Mr Duterte’s government to stop the killings and ensure his anti-drug war respected human rights and complied with the law.

Mr Duterte has rejected the criticism, questioning the right of the United Nations, the United States and Mr Obama to raise human rights issues when US forces, for example, had massacred Muslims in the country’s south in the early 1900s as part of a pacification campaign.

Mr Matobato said under oath that the killings went on from 1988, when Mr Duterte first became Davao city mayor, until 2013. In that year, Mr Matobato said, he expressed his desire to leave the death squad, prompting his colleagues to implicate him criminally in one killing to silence him.

“Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers. These are the kind we killed every day,” Mr Matobato said. But he said their targets were not only criminals but also opponents of Mr Duterte and one of his sons, Paolo Duterte, who is now the vice mayor of Davao.

Presidential spokesman Martin Andanar rejected the allegations, saying government investigations into Mr Duterte’s time as mayor of Davao had already gone nowhere because of a lack of evidence and witnesses.

Philippine human rights officials and advocates have previously said potential witnesses refused to testify against Mr Duterte when he was still mayor out of fear of being killed.

There was no immediate reaction from Mr Duterte. Another Duterte spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said that while Mr Matobato “may sound credible, it is imperative that each and every one of us properly weigh whatever he said and respond right”.

Mr Matobato said the victims in Davao allegedly ranged from petty criminals to a wealthy businessman from central Cebu province who was killed in 2014 in his office in Davao city, allegedly because of a feud with Paolo Duterte over a woman. The president’s son said the allegations were “mere hearsay”, and that he would not “dignify the accusations of a mad man”.

Other victims were a suspected foreign militant whom Mr Matobato said he strangled, then chopped into pieces and buried in a quarry in 2002. Another was a radio commentator, Jun Pala, who was critical of Mr Duterte and was killed by gunmen on motorcycles while walking home in 2003.

After a 1993 bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Davao city, Mr Matobato said Mr Duterte ordered him and his colleagues to launch attacks on mosques in an apparent retaliation. He testified that he threw a grenade at one mosque but there were no casualties because the attacks were carried out when no one was praying.

Mr Matobato said some of the squad’s victims were shot and dumped on Davao streets or buried in three secret pits, while others were dumped at sea with their stomachs cut open and their bodies tied to concrete blocks.

“They were killed like chickens,” he said.

Mr Matobato said he backed away from the killings after feeling guilty and entered a government witness-protection programme.

He left the protection programme when Mr Duterte became president, fearing he would be killed, and said he had decided to speak up “so the killings will stop”.

Matobato’s testimony set off a tense exchange between pro-Duterte and opposition senators.

Alan Peter Cayetano accused Mr Matobato of being part of a plot to unseat Duterte. “I’m testing to see if you were brought here to bring down this government,” he said.

Ms De Lima eventually declared Mr Cayetano “out of order” and ordered senate security personnel to restrain him.

Another senator, former national police chief Panfilo Lacson, warned Mr Matobato that his admissions could land him in jail.

“You can be jailed with your revelations,” Mr Lacson said. “You have no immunity.”

Mr Duterte has immunity from lawsuits as a president, but Ms de Lima said after the senate hearing that the principle may have to be revisited. “What if a leader is elected and turns out to be a mass murderer?” she asked.

* Associated Press

Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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