Priest Exhumes Drug War Victims’ Remains from Cemeteries

Text and photos by Basilio Sepe

The remains of eight victims of alleged extrajudicial killings in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs were exhumed from a public cemetery on Friday after their grave leases expired. 

The dead are among thousands of poor killed since Duterte launched an unrelenting crackdown against illegal drugs, a bloody legacy of his six-year term ending next year.  

“Many could not make that payment, and so are transferred,” Catholic priest Flavie Villanueva, who has been a vocal critic of Duterte and his drug war, told BenarNews. “Because they [the families] do not have money, the bodies of their loved ones temporarily rested in these ‘apartments for rent,’ and were in danger of being lost forever.”

“Apartment for rent” is a term used for maze-like rows of tombs stacked atop each other meters above ground in impoverished sections of Manila.

Such tombs are leased at several thousand pesos (1,000 pesos is $20) a year. In many cases, remains are taken out of the tombs once their leases are up and families fail to settle accounts, according to officials. 

Friday’s exhumations came just two days after the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized international prosecutors to begin an investigation into drug war killings after finding a reasonable basis for allegations of crimes against humanity during Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. 

Villanueva visited three cemeteries in northern Manila where the remains of eight victims were exhumed. Wearing his white vestment and a green stole, the priest offered prayers and sprinkled holy water on the skeletal remains of the victims.

Killed in ‘knock and plead’ operations

Villanueva heads a program called “paghilom” (to heal), which aims to help needy families of those slain in “tokhang” operations, a combination of the Filipino words to “knock and plead” – a term used by the police to knock on homes of known drug users and addicts and plead for their surrender.

Tokhang has come to be associated with killings in the drug war.

Villanueva’s “paghilom” project aims to have victims’ remains exhumed, cremated and returned to their families in urns.

“This will help families in the process of healing,” he said.

Thousands of deaths

The national police have said about 8,000 suspected addicts and dealers have been killed since Duterte took office in 2016.

Rights groups claim the figure could be three times higher with many uncounted victims killed by vigilantes. Duterte has blamed rival gangs for the other killings.

While his administration does not deny that there have been killings, claims that the use of lethal force during official anti-drug operations was for self-defense were undermined by findings in their prosecutor’s preliminary investigation, according to the ICC judges. 

The Duterte administration has insisted it would not entertain any move by the ICC, raising questions about any effort to prosecute. 

On Thursday, Duterte’s lawyer said the president would not cooperate with the ICC inquiry and no investigator would be allowed into the Southeast Asian country.

The Philippines has not been a member of the ICC since 2019 when Duterte pulled out of the treaty.

“The foreign institution has no – as it never had – jurisdiction over the affairs of the Republic of the Philippines and its people,” said chief presidential legal adviser Salvador Panelo.

His statement goes against the Philippine Supreme Court, which ruled in July that the ICC maintains jurisdiction before the pullout and authorities are obliged to cooperate with an investigation.

Duterte’s six-year term ends in 2022. He cannot seek a second term under the constitution, so he has announced plans to run for vice president.

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