Philippine court convicts 4 police officers for killings in Duterte drug war

Victims’ families see convictions as “partial victory” in holding former president accountable for bloody anti-drug campaign
BenarNews staff
Philippine court convicts 4 police officers for killings in Duterte drug war Mary Ann Domingo shows portraits of her husband, Luis Bonifacio, and son, Gabriel, at the Caloocan City Regional Trial Court (Branch 121) in Metro Manila, June 18, 2024, after four police officers were convicted of homicide in their 2016 killings.
Gerard Carreon/BenarNews

A Philippine court convicted four police officers Tuesday for killing a father and his son in 2016, putting the total number of police successfully prosecuted for their involvement in former President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war to eight.

Ma. Rowena Violago Alejandria, the presiding judge of the Caloocan City Regional Trial Court (Branch 121), ruled that the four officers were found guilty of homicide in the September 2016 deaths of Luis Bonifacio, 45, and his 19-year-old son, Gabriel, inside their house in the city. 

The defendants, Police Master Sgt. Virgilio Cervantes and Police Corporals Arnel de Guzman, Johnston Alacre, and Artemio Saguros Jr. were given prison sentences ranging from a minimum of six years to 10 years, with the possibility of applying for parole after serving the minimum.

“The firing of shots made by all the accused which caused the death of the victims without justifiable cause shows [the] same criminal intent towards the same criminal design,” the judge said in the 30-page ruling obtained by BenarNews. 

“The injuries sustained by the victims, the multiple gunshots on their bodies as well as other fractures and wounds would glaringly show the brutality employed upon them, despite the pleading for mercy of the victims,” the ruling also said.

The court also ordered the officers to pay the victims’ family 400,000 pesos (U.S. $6,820) for damages.

Mary Ann Domingo, the widow and mother of the victims, wept as the verdict was read out. She hugged one of her sons who accompanied her to court. 

“I am thankful to the judge for this decision,” Domingo told reporters outside the courtroom. “This is the first time I felt that justice is possible. This is one of the steps for me to attain real justice for my husband and son.”

Upon the request of the police officers, the judge allowed them to continue enjoying temporary freedom – as they are still out on bail – for the next 15 days when the court must either entertain an appeal or close the case.

PH-police-convicted 1.jpg
Supporters hug Mary Ann Domingo, whose husband and son were killed in 2016 during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, after four police officers were convicted of homicide charges in their deaths, at the Caloocan City Regional Trial Court (Branch 121) in Metro Manila, June 18, 2024. [Gerard Carreon/BenarNews]

Julian Oliva Jr., Domingo’s lawyer, said he expected the police officers to file an appeal, probably up to the Supreme Court.

If it were up to Domingo’s camp, they would have wanted a total of twenty-one police officers to be charged with murder, a non-bailable offense. They filed a petition with the Office of the Ombudsman in 2017 but the office ordered the indictment of only four policemen for homicide, a lesser offense. The Ombudsman then sent the homicide charges to the Caloocan City court.

“We are happy but we see this as a partial victory,” Oliva told reporters. “This was a premeditated killing. The son Gabriel begged for the cops to spare his father’s life.”

A single win shared by victims

At least five other mothers and wives who lost their family members in the drug war attended Tuesday’s ruling to support Domingo and her family.

“We are happy because her victory is our victory,” Estrella Nonay, 70, who lost her 33-year-old son, Bernard, in 2018, told BenarNews. 

“They should have been convicted of murder. But we are still grateful to God that somebody is being held accountable. Ultimately, we want Duterte to be jailed,” said Emily Soriano, 55, whose 15-year-old child, Angelito, was killed in 2016. 

Both mothers claimed Caloocan police officers had killed their sons. 

But unlike Domingo, Nonay and Soriano could not file a case because there were no witnesses who wanted to testify about the killing of their sons. “This is a big deal for us who could not attain even an iota of justice here,” Nonay said.

Duterte’s war on drugs

Four other police officers had previously been convicted for killing drug suspects.

In 2018, a court in northern Manila convicted three officers for killing a teenager, shooting him while he begged for mercy. It later turned out that student Kian Loyd delos Santos, 17, was mistakenly identified as a drug addict. His death galvanized opposition to Duterte’s drug war.

In 2023, a court found another policeman guilty of torturing two teenagers and planting evidence on the boys who were later found dead.

Even with Tuesday’s decision, Domingo said the International Criminal Court (ICC) was still needed to investigate the killings under Duterte. 

“This is just one part. This is not just for me but for all the victims,” she said.

Currently, the ICC is investigating Duterte, 79, for crimes against humanity related to his war on drugs during his term from 2016 to 2022.

The Philippine government said that about 8,000 suspected dealers and addicts had been killed during the anti-drug campaign of the Duterte administration. Rights activists say the number could be much higher.

In 2018, after complaints were filed against him in the ICC, Duterte withdrew the Philippines from an international treaty that created the body. The former president declared that he would not allow himself to be subjected to an international trial.  

Antonio Trillanes IV, a former senator highly critical of Duterte, had earlier said he was expecting an arrest warrant for Duterte and others involved in the drug war this month, citing persons “privy to the investigations” done by the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Duterte’s successor as president, has repeatedly said that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the Philippines. But in May, the justice department said it was preparing a briefer for Marcos in case the international court did issue an arrest warrant against Duterte. 

Camille Elemia and Gerard Carreon contributed to this report from Manila.


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