THE Commission on Human Rights 7 is investigating 89 cases of alleged extra-judicial killing committed in Central Visayas since the Duterte administration began its war on illegal drugs in July 2016, including those which may have been committed by civilians.

“We have officially docketed for investigation 41 incidents of alleged extra-judicial killing (EJK) with 47 victims from July to December 2016, 43 cases with 48 victims in 2017, and five cases with five victims this year,” Commission on Human Rights (CHR) 7 special investigator Leo Villarino told SunStar Cebu last Friday. “All the cases are drug related.”

Asked how they knew the cases were drug related with the assailants still unknown, he gave the example of Ronda Vice Mayor Jonnah John Ungab killed in an ambush last Feb. 19.

“We consider the case of Atty. Ungab drug related because in our view, there’s a connection with the war on drugs. He was the lawyer of a high-value target (self-confessed drug lord Rolando “Kerwin” Espinosa Jr.). Kerwin’s father (Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr.) was also killed. The lawyer of Mayor Espinosa was also killed. There might be a pattern. And our initial investigation doesn’t indicate any other motive, like political or personal, so we’re now concentrating on the drug angle,” he said.

In November 2016, the elder Espinosa was killed in an alleged firefight with members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in his jail cell in Leyte, where he had been detained for possession of drugs and unlicensed firearms.

President Rodrigo Duterte had earlier linked the two Espinosas to the illegal drug trade. The Espinosas’ lawyer, Rogelio Bato Jr., was killed in an ambush in Tacloban City in August 2016.

Cebu accounted for 74 of the cases at the CHR 7; Negros Oriental, eight; and Bohol, seven. These are still “alleged EJKs” until there is a resolution by CHR’s legal section that these incidents, per its evaluation, are really EJK, Villarino said.

The CHR 7’s EJK figures differ from those provided by other groups because not all incidents come to its attention, and it also prioritizes the cases it investigates due to its limited resources to conduct investigation.

The CHR 7’s cases include those possibly committed by civilians, rather than just state actors, so long as there is a drug angle, “because this is a violation of the right to life.”

Villarino said the police did not have to be involved in the killings to be held accountable for them.

“For example, this spate of killings now perpetrated by motorcycle-riding assailants, if the police continue to sit on these cases, we can blame government for this inaction. Failure of government to conduct meaningful investigations, especially when they are in the position to do so, will make the state liable for these killings because it is the prime duty of government to protect the right to life of its citizens,” he said.

“Even if a civilian perpetrated the killing, if the government didn’t lift a finger to investigate, it will be held liable for this EJK,” he said. “They can be held liable not as direct actor but as passive actor.”

Villarino said that with the new guidelines of the relaunched Oplan Tokhang, the CHR is now looking at the watchlist of the police.

In the past, it was easy for police units to just tag persons as drug personalities and conduct operations against them. But under the new guidelines, names can no longer just be added to the watchlist if they have not first been submitted to the Directorate for Intelligence in Camp Crame for validation.

“If they conduct an operation against or shoot a person, his name should be in the watchlist,” Villarino said.

Oplan Tokhang, the police project launched in July 2016 to knock on the doors of suspected drug users and pushers to ask them to stop their illegal drug activities, was relaunched last January after twice being suspended in 2017 after concerns that cops were committing EJKs in the name of the war on drugs.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) said 3,906 suspected drug users and dealers were killed in its anti-illegal drugs operations from July 2016 to September 2017. But including those killed by unidentified gunmen, the death toll in the war on drugs was more than 12,000, Human Rights Watch estimated.

Villarino lamented CHR’s continuing difficulty in investigating cases, citing the lack of cooperation from both the police and the victims’ families.

“Sometimes, we have to get the death certificates ourselves. We subpoena the Civil Registrar’s Office to ask for the death certificate because the family even refuses to speak with us,” he said.

As for the police, it has stopped providing the CHR with its investigation reports after PNP chief Gen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa said the PNP would provide only its spot reports, because its investigation reports were confidential and releasing them might jeopardize its own investigation.

“A spot report is a one-day investigation only. What we want is their investigation report because that would show who the operatives in that operation were, so we would know whom to investigate, whom to charge,” Villarino said.