Philippine senators deride witness who linked President Duterte to 'death squad'

Mr Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed former hitman, during a senate hearing on drug-related extra-judicial killings, in Pasay city, Philippines on Sept 15, 2016.
Mr Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed former hitman, during a senate hearing on drug-related extra-judicial killings, in Pasay city, Philippines on Sept 15, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine senators cast doubt on the credibility of a self-confessed hit-man on Friday (Sept 16) after he testified to seeing the country's president kill a man and order assassinations during his two decades as mayor of the once restive Davao City.

Mr Edgar Matobato, 57, volunteered to appear at a televised senate hearing on Thursday and told a panel investigating President Rodrigo Duterte's current drugs war that in the 1990s, he had seen the then Davao mayor order killings and pepper a man's body with submachine gun fire.

Mr Duterte has yet to comment on the testimony, but his office and his political allies have dismissed it as baseless.

Little is known about Mr Matobato, whose senate appearance was a hot topic on social media and radio stations on Friday. He had said he was a member of a "Davao death squad" that had killed hundreds of suspected criminals "like chickens", chopped up their bodies, and even fed one man to a crocodile.

Senators Panfilo Lacson, Aquilino Pimentel and Alan Peter Cayetano were among numerous lawmakers who said the witness could not be taken seriously. "There are many lapses in his testimonies," Sen Lacson said."Like in baseball, I was counting his strike-outs."

Mr Duterte won an election in May promising to wipe out drugs and drug dealers.

Since he took office in June, about 2,500 people have been killed in his "war on drugs". About 900 died in police operations and the rest authorities say were "deaths under investigation", a term human rights activists say is a euphemism for vigilante and extrajudicial killings.

National police chief Ronald Dela Rosa called Mr Matobato a"false witness" and said death squads never existed in Davao.

He also said Mr Duterte's anti-narcotics crusade had cut the supply of drugs by 80 per cent to 90 per cent and the police were "removing the fear of crime and violence in the hearts of our countrymen".

Mr Matobato's whereabouts on Friday were not known.

The senate leadership turned down a request from Senator Leila de Lima, who is heading the panel looking into Mr Duterte's drugs war, for Mr Matobato to be taken into protective custody, saying his testimony was not related to the ongoing drugs crackdown.

Sen De Lima said Mr Matobato's testimony showed a clear pattern from the hundreds being killed in Mr Duterte's current campaign to the more than 1,000 mysterious deaths rights groups documented in Davao between 1988 and 2013.

She conceded that Mr Matobato could be wrong about some dates, but added: "My impression is that he is not lying."

Some senators have questioned why as justice secretary in 2014, when Mr Matobato was in a witness-protection programme, Sen De Lima had filed no cases against Mr Duterte.

The President has launched blistering verbal attacks on Sen De Lima, accusing her of being on the payroll of drug gangs, which she denies.

Separately, eight prisoners were transferred to a high security military camp on Friday in preparation for giving testimony in a Lower House investigation into Sen De Lima's alleged drugs ties.

That congressional hearing is due to take place on Tuesday, coinciding with Sen De Lima's plan to present more witnesses for her senate investigation.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the United Nations should look into the drugs war and be allowed to interview witnesses like Mr Matobato.

"President Duterte can't be expected to investigate himself," Mr Brad Adams, its Asia director, said in a statement. "Otherwise, Filipinos may never know if the President was directly responsible for extrajudicial killings."