Filipina in hiding after accusing police of drug killings

Mother of three determined to get justice for her partner and his father who were shot dead in a Manila police station a day after they were arrested.

Harra Kazuo, whose partner and his father were shot dead in prison a day after being arrested in a drug raid in Manila, at the offices of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. Aaron Favila / AP Photo / September 7, 2016
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MANILA // When police killed Harra Kazuo’s common-law husband and his father following a drug raid in the Philippines, she sought one thing: justice.

In a television interview shortly after their deaths in July, the 26-year-old mother accused two officers of killing them in cold blood. She repeated the allegation before a senate committee investigating the country’s drug war in testimony that was broadcast nationwide.

What Ms Kazuo received, instead, was a lesson in the consequences of speaking out. She lives with her three children in hiding, under a witness protection programme run by the country’s independent human rights commission, which is investigating the case.

That such a programme exists shows the widespread lack of trust in the country’s police, who are spearheading an anti-drug campaign that has killed more than 4,000 people in a matter of months. It also illustrates the failures of a broken justice system.

Ms Kazuo said she was pursuing the case because “what is happening is not right”.

“I want them to feel how they treated my husband,” she said. “I want them to feel what it’s like for a family to lose a loved one.”

Although both officers have been suspended and have faced preliminary hearings, city prosecutor Orlando Mariano said they remained free and neither has been charged.

Jose Luis Martin Gascon, the head of the rights commission, said no policemen have faced criminal charges in court since the drug war began despite persistent reports of security forces killing drug suspects.

Police spokesman Dionardo Carlo said policemen had been arrested and charged, but he could offer no details.

Either way, the killing of Ms Kazuo’s family members “is the highest profile case we’ve had so far, and it’s not even in court yet,” Mr Gascon said. “So what do you think’s going to happen to the rest – the ones that got no attention and have already been forgotten?”

President Rodrigo Duterte unleashed his campaign to rid the country of narcotics after taking office on June 30. The effort was praised by a population exasperated by corruption and crime, but it has been condemned by the United Nations, foreign governments and human rights groups because of its high death toll and disregard for due process of law.

Ms Kazuo admits that her husband, Jaypee Bertes, was small-time methamphetamine dealer but says he could find no other work.

Just before midnight on July 6, police raided their one-room flat in a Manila slum. The officers did not find any drugs but they took 28-year-old Bertes away, along with his father Renato, 49.

When Ms Kazuo visited them at a police station the next morning, both men were severely bruised. Hours after she left they were shot dead at the end of a narrow corridor, each three times.

Police said one of them attempted to grab a weapon belonging to the officers. But commission officials, who conducted their own forensics investigation, said they had been beaten so badly that they could not have done so. One of Jaypee’s arms had been broken.

Mr Gascon said the officers in Ms Kazuo’s case may have killed her husband to cover any links that could connect them to drug crimes.

Ms Kazuo said Jaypee had met the two officers at least once before, when he bribed them to get out of a drug charge.

The families of most victims in the drug war have stayed silent for good reason. One man who doggedly pursued justice for months for his sister, who had been killed by unidentified gunmen in Manila, turned up dead in October.

The death fits a pattern that has characterised Mr Duterte’s “war”: those who speak out against it, or are perceived as doing so, often face consequences.

Ms Kazuo said she was now cut off from friends and family and did not dare phone them for fear her calls could be tracked. On the few occasions she has met relatives, she has done so at the offices of the rights commission, which delivers groceries each week so she does not have to leave her home.

The commission is protecting at least seven other witnesses in similar circumstances, and its investigators are combing more than 250 cases, many involving allegations of police extrajudicial killings or other abuses.

“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” Mr Gascon said. “While Duterte is president, I do not believe people will be charged and held to account, so what we need to do now is to prepare the evidence for the time we can have a proper reckoning.”

* Associated Press