Court convicts 3 cops in teen's murder that rolled back Duterte's drug war

A member of the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation inspects the site where Kian delos Santos was killed during anti-drug operations in August 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Three policemen involved in the killing of a teen, whose death sparked public anger that forced President Rodrigo Duterte to dial down his deadly drug war, were convicted of murder on Thursday (Nov 29).

The court sentenced police officers Arnel Oares, Jeremias Pereda and Jerwin Cruz to at least 20 years in prison, without the possibility of a parole, for killing 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in August last year.

They are the first policemen to be convicted in a case involving an extrajudicial killing since Mr Duterte began cracking down on the narcotics trade two years ago.

Kian's death drew widespread condemnation for its brutality and brazenness.

On Aug 16 last year, anti-narcotics agents raided a rundown district in Caloocan city, north of the capital Manila. Three of them ran into Kian. Moments later, the boy was found dead in a dark, trash-logged alley by a river, next to a pigsty.

He was among 18 killed that night. By then, at least 85 had been killed in three nights of bloody police crackdowns on suspected drug dealers and addicts.

The three policemen who killed the boy said they fired back when he shot at them and tried to flee. They had him marked as a drug courier of his father and uncles.

But footage from a security camera showed that the officers already had the boy in custody and was dragging him to where his body was later found. A witness said he heard Kian, a Grade 12 student, pleading as he was being beaten: "Enough, please! Enough! I have a test tomorrow."

The boy was then forced to take a gun, fire it and then told to run away.

An autopsy later revealed he was shot three times. He was shot once in the back, and the angle of the bullet wounds showed he was shot again twice in the head, as he was lying face down on the pavement.

Mr Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo backed the verdict.

"This was murder. There was an intention to kill. The President will not tolerate that," he said.

Kian's death sparked calls for a tougher stand against Mr Duterte's drug war.

Senators crossed party lines to investigate the killing.

Human rights activists and church leaders mobilised rallies to draw public attention to allegations that police officers had been systematically executing suspected users and dealers.

Thousands turned up for Kian's funeral march that turned into one of the biggest protests yet over those killed in Mr Duterte's anti-crime drive.

Mourners who live in rundown districts where Mr Duterte had enjoyed broad support lined up along roads, holding up placards and tarpaulins that called for a stop to the killings and labelled lawmen as "killers" and "scourges".

The outrage forced Mr Duterte to withdraw the police from his drug war. He put them back on the trail of drug users and dealers three months later, after he was assured changes in police procedures were already in place.

Public Attorney's Office chief Persida Acosta, who handled Kian's case, said the verdict proved police involvement in extrajudicial killings.

But she insisted these were not state-sanctioned.

"If they were, we wouldn't be able to file a case, we wouldn't be able to prosecute, and our judges would not be able to render judgment on policemen," she told reporters.

Drug-related killings in Manila have not been as pronounced in recent months. But media reports showed a spike in casualties in places outside the capital where police have stepped up their anti-narcotics operations.

This year, from February to October, 198 deaths were reported in central Philippines, mostly in Cebu province.

The government has reported that nearly 5,000 suspects have been killed so far in shoot-outs during drug raids. But human rights activists insist the number is closer to 13,000. Two-thirds are believed to have been killed by paid assassins backed by police.

The Children's Legal Rights and Development Centre said Kian was just one of 54 minors, aged one to 17, killed so far in the drug war.

Activists, lawmakers and families of victims of the drug war have filed two complaints with the International Criminal Court accusing Mr Duterte of murder and crimes against humanity.

Mr Duterte has insisted he told police to kill only in self-defence and has lashed out at critics while demonstrating no remorse for the deaths.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said the guilty verdict in the case of Kian showed Mr Duterte "cannot wash his hands off these killings any longer, and his apologists cannot play deaf, dumb and blind in his defence".

"Through his words and endless provocation, President Duterte set into motion the killing of thousands. He has smeared the image of the police force.

"He incited this culture of killing and impunity. He can no longer deny responsibility for inflicting death and violence while he has clearly and repeatedly encouraged them," she said.

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