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Philippine President Duterte Is Being Investigated By An International Court

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The International Criminal Court has formally authorized an official investigation into the anti-drug war of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The move casts a long shadow over Duterte. Human rights defenders and families of victims claim it as a victory.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is covering this. Julie, why did the court authorize this probe?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Well, this three-judge pretrial chamber said there was reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed in the context of the anti-drug campaign. At least 6,000 Filipinos have been killed by the official count. Rights groups say that number could be four times that. The judges also said the evidence that has emerged, including 200 witnesses, shows that the drug war cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation. Instead, they said, the killings indicate a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population.

MARTINEZ: How difficult will it be for prosecutors to actually prove the case that the drug war was a crime?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, this is the first time the court has actually investigated a national drug war. And there was a question about whether the court had jurisdiction because the Philippines had withdrawn from the ICC. The court settled that by essentially saying to the Philippines, for the time you were a member, up until March 2019, you're on the hook. But the first thing the prosecutor has to do is establish that these serious crimes occurred. It helps that the drug war had wide publicity and that President Duterte himself declared things like, I will kill you if you peddle drugs. So there were kill threats.

But the second phase is a far trickier one. That's actually linking up these specific crimes to specific perpetrators. Of course, here the expectation is that the prosecutor could make a link to President Duterte. In fact, the prosecutor will also investigate events in Davao City, where Duterte first launched a bloody campaign against drugs as mayor. And the court said there's enough evidence linking those earlier events to the national drug campaign.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what are the biggest hurdles the prosecution could face?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, there's a history of perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity obstructing justice to evade it. They can intimidate witnesses, destroy evidence. They can politicize the proceedings so that you whip up a nationalist fervor against the ICC. That's what a prosecutor is up against. What could help a prosecutor is getting an insider to turn evidence. But again, that's unlikely in the current climate of the Philippines. Duterte's brash threats about killing are extremely intimidating. And they're a disincentive to offer evidence against him.

MARTINEZ: Here's the thing, though. I mean, Duterte's term in office is up next year. And he's trying to line up a successor who could protect him from exactly this sort of investigation. And now that the investigation...

MCCARTHY: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: ...Is reality, Julie, I mean, how does this impact him in the presidential race?

MCCARTHY: Well, it certainly deepens the urgency for him to find a loyalist successor. And perhaps he throws all of his energy behind getting his daughter, Sara Duterte, elected to the presidency. You know, meanwhile, Duterte's legal counsel said today that the government will not allow ICC investigators into the country. The fact is, this case could drag on after Duterte leaves office next June. And in the words of one ICC watcher, international prosecutors have learned to play the long game if and when they have to.

MARTINEZ: NPR's international correspondent Julie McCarthy. Julie, thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.