Oplan Tokhang under fire

By Perry Diaz

ONE OF the most controversial police operations is Oplan Tokhang where police officers have killed suspected drug pushers and users in the past 16 months. “Tokhang” is derived from two Bisayan words: “toktok” (to knock) and “hangyo” (to plead). It is a police operation wherein the police knock on the doors of suspected drug users or pushers and ask them to surrender. In most cases, when the police go to the house and the household people refuse to allow them to enter, the police force their way in, which could lead to a shoot-out… and death.

Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office through the end of 2016, around 6,000 people have been killed in the campaign, 2,000 of which were killed during legitimate police operations while the remaining 4,000 were extrajudicial killings (EJKs) or vigilante-style killings. Based on these numbers, Duterte claimed the anti-illegal drugs campaign to be a “success.”

Records also show that the number of deaths during legitimate police operations dropped to an average of five persons daily in 2017, compared to an average of 30 deaths per day in 2016.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said “the government’s crackdown on narcotics also pulled down the country’s crime rate by 32 percent.”
“People feel safer in the streets and at night because the number of theft, carjacking, robbery, rape, physical injury has decreased.  At the end of the day, this is what counts,” Andanar noted. However, local and international human rights groups have condemned the Philippine government for the human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.

Police abuse

Last January, Duterte suspended Oplan Tokhang following the kidnapping and killing of Jee Ick-Joo, a South Korean businessman whose body was found within the grounds of Camp Crame, the headquarters of the PNP. Consequently, Duterte stripped the PNP and the NBI of the authority to conduct Oplan Tokhang operations and designated the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), backed by the Army, as the lead agency in Oplan Tokhang operations. He also abolished the anti-drug units of PNP and vowed to cleanse the PNP of “scalawags.”

But it was the death of two teenagers, which stirred public furor. One was Kian delos Santos, 17, who was murdered according to the NBI and the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO). “The boy was killed kneeling down,” the NBI report said.

The other, Carl Arnaiz, 19, was killed with excessive violence, according to the PAO report. Bruises were found around his eyes and his wrists were swollen from the metal handcuffs. The autopsy revealed four gunshot wounds to his chest and one to his arm. The PAO report said that it was a case of “overkill.”

“Sole agency”

As a result of the two teenagers’ killing, Duterte’s satisfactory rating plummeted by 18 points. Alarmed by the sudden drop in popularity, Duterte issued a memorandum, which ordered the PNP, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the Philippines Postal Office and other “ad hoc anti-drug task force” to leave the implementation of the drug war to the PDEA. But despite removing the PNP from the drug war, Duterte directed the PNP to maintain its visibility “at all times” as a “deterrent to illegal drug activities.” Does that translate to a “shoot to kill” order?

But citing lack of manpower in the anti-drug war, Duterte later decided to tap the PNP again in the war on drugs. However, he stressed that only the “qualified” ones would be allowed to join Oplan Tokhang. Hmmm… Does it seem like it’s “business as usual” where the police could “neutralize” suspected drug pushers or users if the need arises? As the Amnesty International has said, the designation of PDEA as the lead agency to conduct the war on drugs could just be a “PR” move by the government. Like they say, “Pa PR PR lang yan” (“That’s just all PR”). But “PR” or not, Oplan Tokhang is finally being challenged, not in the streets of Metro Manila but in the halls of justice.

Last October 11, a group of human rights lawyers urged the Supreme Court (SC) to stop the implementation of Oplan Tokhang by revoking two orders that serve as the campaign’s blueprint. The three petitioners are represented by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which filed a petition before the SC to declare the PNP Command Memorandum Circular 16-2016 and the DILG Memorandum Circular 2017-112 unconstitutional.

“Double trouble”

FLAG Chairman Jose Manuel Diokno said the CMC 16-2016 known as Project Double Barrel is unconstitutional because: “It expressly authorizes the police to kill suspected drug personalities; it replaces the police function of evidence-gathering and case build-up with that of compiling lists of suspected drug criminals; and the house-to-house visits under Project Tokhang are based on the ‘furtive fingers’ of unknown informants.”

The other order MC2017-112 known as Masa Masid orders all barangays to establish a drop box system to anonymously report suspected criminals, which Diokno said “violates the right to due process of law and to be presumed innocent.”
He explained that reporting crimes is done by witnesses who have knowledge of criminal activity while submitting names of alleged criminals “can be done by anyone who suspects, rightly or wrongly, that another person is a criminal.” He likens this to the Kempeitai during the Japanese occupation in the Philippines and the secret police Gestapo in Nazi Germany. He said allowing the submission of complaints through a drop box gives any person the opportunity to “report any person even if they are completely innocent.”

On November 21, the SC began hearing oral arguments on the constitutionality of the “bloody drug war.” FLAG lawyers argued that the raids where police would enter the homes of suspected drug users without a warrant and then proceed to ‘”neutralize” them is in violation of the Philippine Constitution. The lawyers further argued that the word “neutralize” could be misinterpreted by police officers to mean, “kill.”

Three decades ago, the military and the police under the martial law regime of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos used the word “salvage” to indicate killing somebody who is on the government’s hit list. “Salvaging” is now a relic of the dark days of the brutal era of Marcos’ reign of terror. In today’s political culture, “neutralize” seems to be more acceptable than “salvage.” But make no mistake, they both mean the same thing, “kill.”