MANILA — The International Criminal Court prosecution has requested authorization to open an investigation into killings in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.

In a public request on Monday, outgoing prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally asked for an investigation into drug war killings between 2016, when the populist Duterte won the presidential election, and 2019, when the Philippines withdrew from the ICC. The Duterte government continues to wage the bloody campaign.

"Information obtained by the Prosecution suggests that state actors, primarily members of the Philippine security forces, killed thousands of suspected drug users and other civilians during official law enforcement operations," Bensouda wrote. "Markedly similar crimes were committed outside official police operations, reportedly by so-called 'vigilantes,' although information suggests that some vigilantes were in fact police officers, while others were private citizens recruited, coordinated, and paid by police to kill civilians."

Bensouda wrote in a statement Monday that she filed the request after her office concluded its three-year preliminary examination into the situation. "On the basis of that work, I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed," she wrote.

Officially, Philippine authorities reported more than 6,000 deaths in government operations between 2016 and 2020. Human rights watchdogs estimate a number up to five times as high, and the ICC estimated "between 12,000 and 30,000" killings.

Bensouda also requested that killings between 2011 and 2016 in Davao City, Duterte's hometown, where he served as mayor, be included in the investigation, as well as allegations of "torture and other inhumane acts" dating all the way to November 2011.

Duterte's government has yet to respond to the ICC move. In remarks last week, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarro said the government was working to investigate abuses committed by security officers and cooperate with the United Nations to promote a "human rights-based approach to combating drugs."

The government has sought to make the case that it can deal with police abuse domestically. Earlier this month, however, Duterte said he would not grant rights watchdogs full access to drug war records, citing national security concerns.

Duterte has repeatedly defended the crackdown as essential to protecting citizens from violent drug dealers.

An ICC investigation – and even conviction – offers a rare possibility of accountability in a country with a long-standing culture of impunity and where Duterte retains record approval ratings.

International rights groups hailed the ICC step on Monday.

"This announcement is a moment of hope for thousands of families in the Philippines who are grieving those lost to the government's so-called 'war on drugs,'" Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement. "This is a much-awaited step in putting murderous incitement by President Duterte and his administration to an end."

Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that Duterte's "presumption of impunity for these crimes was dealt a blow today."

The judicial request caps Bensouda's term as she retires Tuesday. She will be succeeded by human rights expert Karim Khan of Britain.

The Philippines formally left the ICC in 2019, in what critics viewed as an attempt to evade a probe into Duterte's drug war. He previously threatened to arrest Bensouda if she set foot in the country.

The Philippines' withdrawal is not expected to affect the case. Bensouda's statement on Monday said the court retains jurisdiction over crimes alleged to have occurred in the country when it was still party to the Rome Statute.

The international court, based in The Hague, was established to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression when domestic courts fail to do so. But it has faced obstacles and fierce criticism along the way from African countries and previous U.S. administrations.

The ICC has also been hampered by what it has called inadequate resources and flagging global support.

Bensouda wrote Monday that the court "today stands at a crossroads in several concurrent situations, where the basis to proceed is legally and factually clear, but the operational means to do so are severely lacking."

Bensouda wrote that her office had taken steps to preserve evidence gathered in the preliminary investigation to smooth the way for a formal probe.


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