Miriam: ‘Disregard’ claims of human rights violations vs Duterte

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said voters can “disregard” human rights allegations against her fellow presidential bet, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, unless there is evidence to prove these. 

Calling Duterte her “best friend,” the constitutional expert said Duterte's admissions that he killed criminals were just an “exaggerated way” of catching the public's attention. 

“Si Mayor Duterte halos magkamukha lang kami, kaya kami matalik na magkaibigan kasi sometimes we descend to the level of hyperbole. 'Yun bang sinosobrahan mo ang sinasabi mo para mas epektibo, mas nakaka-catch ng attention ng mga nakikinig pero 'di naman literally true,” Santiago said in a press briefing in Pasig City on Monday, December 14. 

(Mayor Duterte and I are alike. We are best friends because sometimes we descend to the level of hyperbole. You exaggerate what you are saying so it becomes more effective, you better catch the attention of listeners even if it's not literally true.) 

Both regarded as non-traditional candidates in a 5-way presidential race, Duterte and Santiago are long-time friends. The mayor helped out Santiago in her past senatorial campaigns. He even described her as “brilliant” in a radio interview. 

A former trial court judge, Santiago pointed out that allegations that Duterte was behind the infamous Davao Death Squad were never proven in court. The group is tagged in the killings of suspected drug dealers, petty criminals, and even street children in Davao City, southern Philippines. 

She questioned why the accusations were revived after Duterte belatedly joined and shook up the presidential race in November. The controversial, tough-talking mayor has topped surveys commissioned by a businessman supporting him. 

“I think itong mga accusations of a death squad, other terrorist actuations, dapat kung may reklamo sila, noon pa. Noon pa 'yun eh. Storya na 'yun noon pa, baka 10 taon na. Kaya bakit 'di nila pinag-file-an ng mga ganoong kaso?” said Santiago. 

(I think these accasations of a death squad, of terrorist actuations, they should have complained a long time ago. These have been stories for a long time, maybe 10 years now. So how come they never filed a case?) 

Santiago said when Duterte says he kills criminals, the mayor might mean he ordered their killings “according to law.” 

“There are police circulars on how you can kill at will, kill on site. There are regulations on how you can kill a person according to the law. Maybe that's what he means because no person will say 'I killed someone,' and describe it. That would be an admission against interest, and he will need the full panoply of judicial defense,” Santiago said.

She added: “So I think it can be disregarded unless there is weighty evidence.” 

Global human rights groups have been raising the alarm on Duterte's candidacy. 

The New York-based Human Rights Watch pointed out that Duterte publicly admitted to his links to the Davao Death Squad, which supposedly claimed the lives of 1,000 people during his decades-longn leadership. The group criticized the “political tolerance” of national leaders to Duterte's alleged rights abuses.

Amnesty International warned that human rights are sidelined in the run-up to the May 2016 polls.

Last week, Duterte even bragged: “I killed 700? They underestimated the figures. Around 1,700.”

'Too late to investigate' 

Duterte's entry into the presidential race is widely seen as a game changer. The mayor of Davao for over two decades, Duterte captured the imagination of many supporters who want him to replicate his peace and order campaign in the city across the nation. 

Yet Duterte fuelled controversy over human rights allegations, and his statements on killings, womanizing, and cursing Pope Francis over traffic.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said last week that the justice department must investigate Duterte's admission that he killed criminals under his watch as mayor. 

To Santiago, the probe comes too late. “It is doing its job or even overdoing its job or it might even be too late to do its job.” 

“The question that remains on the minds of his supporters is why were these accusations not taken seriously more or less at the time when the alleged crimes were committed? Why only now that he announced his candidacy for president? And by the way, now it becomes possibly an obstacle to his candidacy because these are crimes against humanity, or crimes against human rights,” the senator said. 

The CHR under then chairperson Leila de Lima also investigated the allegations against Duterte during the Arroyo administration. The probe though did not lead to the filing of charges against the mayor. 

Lawmakers also downplayed Duterte's previous public statement vowing to “gladly kill” smugglers. Human rights groups calling for a probe into Duterte's activities said “the government seems to look the other way.”  

'All presidential bets target of attacks' 

Santiago concluded that she could not believe the allegations against Duterte. 

“I was a former judge, and I am always careful to make a distinction between hyperbole, exaggerated way of talking, and a serious piece of evidence that's not just testimonial. We all have to obey the rules of court, particularly rules of evidence.” 

She hinted that the allegations were just political attacks that all presidential candidates are subject to. 

“Lahat kami iisa-isahin talaga kasi may nagkakapera sa bawat eleksyon sa pamamaraan ng paninira, dirty operations. Bawat kandidato, maliban sa akin, may pera talaga na babayaran ang tao na manira o mag-imbento.” 

(All of us will be targeted because people really make a money out of dirty operations. Each candidate, except for me, has the money to pay people to invent allegations.) 

While human rights advocates are disturbed by the allegations, Santiago used humor to refer to the persisent claims. 

She joked to students of the Rizal Technological University in Pasig about presidential bets, including Duterte.  

“May isa rin na 'pag tiningnan lang niya, namamatay kaagad ang tao,” she said, laughing with the crowd. (There's also this one who kills with his looks.) – Rappler.com