MANILA (AFP) - The Philippines has halted an investigation into an alleged vigilante death squad linked to president-elect Rodrigo Duterte after the key witness disappeared, likely due to fear of the incoming leader, officials said.
Outgoing justice secretary Emmanuel Caparas said the Justice Department's investigation could not proceed because the sole witness had left the government's witness protection programme.
"There's really nothing there. I don't think the witness is there any more... because he hasn't surfaced again," he said.
"Unless that (person) comes forward, it's very difficult to do anything about it," he told reporters.
Former justice secretary Leila de Lima, who initiated the probe into the death squads, said on Sunday (May 22) the witness clearly feared Duterte - who was elected president in a landslide on May 9.
"From all indications, the decision of the witness to leave (the protection programme) is definitely in reaction to Duterte's (likely) victory," said de Lima, who was elected senator in the May 9 polls.
Duterte, longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao, had boasted while campaigning of being involved with vigilante death squads that had killed over a thousand people in his city.
He had also vowed that once elected, he would kill 100,000 criminals and dump so many in Manila Bay that the "fish will grow fat" from feeding on them.
De Lima told AFP that "even before the elections, he (the witness) was worried of a Duterte victory".
The former justice secretary said the witness asked to leave the witness protection programme after she resigned from the department in October to run for office.
Human rights groups have accused Duterte of organising or tolerating vigilante squads that have targeted suspected criminals and street children in Davao, killing more than 1,000 people since the 1980s.
But Duterte, whose tough-talking style and ruthless approach to crime has won him a huge following, has brushed aside such concerns.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the decision to drop the investigation was "a disturbing failure" to address the many government-linked killings in the strife-torn Philippines.
"The decision sends a chilling message that those responsible for targeted killings don't need to fear about being punished for their egregious crimes," the group said in a statement on Sunday.
It called on the government to reopen the investigation.
Spokesmen for Duterte, who takes office on June 30, could not be contacted for comment.