Philippine leader threatens to hunt Maoist ‘assassins’ with his own ‘Duterte Death Squad’
- The move has been likened to the strongman leader’s anti-drugs campaign that has left thousands of people dead, many seemingly executed
Philippine leftists reacted with dismay on Wednesday to President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to create a “death squad” to hunt so-called Maoist assassins, a plan critics said could trigger a spree of killings similar to his bloody war on drugs.
The country’s 50-year fight against communist militants, one of Asia’s oldest insurgencies, long predates his anti-narcotics crackdown that has killed thousands and drawn international censure.
Maoists, leftists and some lawmakers said Duterte would worsen an existing climate of fear and impunity by threatening to unleash his own hitmen on those of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Duterte, like previous governments, initially held peace talks with the communists but shelved negotiations last year over deadly attacks against soldiers and police.
In a speech on Tuesday night, he took aim at the communist rebels’ hit squads known as “sparrow units”, who were deployed to kill police during the rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not clear if these sparrow units still exist.
“What I lack is my own sparrow. That is where they (communists) have an edge … So I will create my own sparrow, Duterte Death Squad against the sparrow,” he said. “I will match their talent also for assassinating people.”
Since negotiations with the rebels broke down, Duterte has formally designated the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA, its 3,800-member armed wing, as terrorist organisations.
The low-level, simmering insurgency has claimed 30,000 lives by the government’s count.
Jose Maria Sison, the exiled founder of the Communist Party, denied the existence of “sparrow” assassins and said Duterte was using it as a pretext to kill suspected Maoist rebels.
He likened it to Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign, during which thousands of people have been killed. Activists say many appear to have been executions, but police deny that and say all were shoot-outs with drug dealers.
“He is inventing so many sparrow units to justify his own death squads which are illegal,” Sison said in a TV interview.
“He gives himself the reason to form his own death squads. Anyone suspected could be killed because police have the licence to kill.”
Duterte’s bellicose statements have alarmed rights groups, because they say police are interpreting them as being given a green light to kill suspected criminals.
Police say they have killed nearly 5,000 alleged users and pushers, while rights groups say the toll is at least triple that and could amount to crimes against humanity.
Duterte has been dogged by accusations that he ran a death squad when he was mayor of Davao City and oversaw a fierce crackdown on crime. He denies the allegations.
Leftist group Bayan said in a statement that the president was “inciting a killing spree against government critics, human rights defenders and just about everyone else tagged by the government as ‘Red’”.
“His (Duterte’s) statement is a declaration of open season against rebels, leftists, civilians, and critics of the government,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“This new policy will only worsen the ongoing drug war-fuelled human rights calamity in the Philippines.”
Amnesty International also expressed alarm, citing the practice of labelling government critics as communist rebels or sympathisers.
“What is scary is that anyone can be a target,” said the group’s human rights officer Wilnor Papa.
Senator Antonio Trillanes said Duterte was insecure about his hold on power.
“He wants to strike fear again into the hearts and minds of the Filipinos by forewarning that there would be another round of killings,” Trillanes said. “Fear is his only way to keep people in check.”
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte’s hit squad idea would be considered, but it would need clear operational guidelines and oversight.
“We will study it very closely,” he told CNN Philippines, adding that there “is great danger of abuse or mistakes in these undercover operations”.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse