A self-confessed hitman testified on Thursday that President Rodrigo Duterte personally issued assassination orders while mayor of a city where activists say hundreds of summary executions took place.
The president made no comment on the allegations on Thursday but his political allies dismissed them as lies.
Speaking during a senate hearing investigating the Philippine president’s anti-crime crackdown, Edgar Matobato said he heard Duterte, as mayor of Davao city in the early 1990s, give instructions to carry out extrajudicial killings.
“Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers,” said the 57-year-old, adding he himself had killed more than 50 people while working for a “Davao Death Squad”.
“They were killed like chickens,” he told the televised hearing. Matobato also alleged that the president’s eldest son and Davao’s current vice mayor, Paolo Duterte, was a drug user who ordered the death of a hotel owner in 2014.
Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly denied involvement in vigilantism as either mayor or president. In a speech on Thursday he made no mention of the senate hearing.
Rights groups have documented some 1,400 suspicious killings in Davao since the early 1990s and critics say the bloody war on drugs Duterte has unleashed since taking office on June 30 bears the hallmarks of similar methods.
More than 3,500 people, or about 47 per day, have been killed in the past 10 weeks, some 58 per cent by unknown assailants and the rest in legitimate police operations, according to police.
Matobato said that in the 1990s he had overheard Rodrigo Duterte order the bombing of mosques in Davao as retaliation for an attack on a cathedral.
“He ordered us to kill Muslims,” Matobato said.
He told how Duterte had once rushed to the scene when the mayor’s men encountered a government agent. “Mayor Duterte was the one who finished him off,” Matobato said, saying Duterte emptied two magazines from an Uzi firearm into the man.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre described Matobato’s testimony as “lies, fabrications and a product of a fertile and a coached imagination”.
Matobato told the hearing the body of one Davao victim was fed to a crocodile. Some were thrown into the sea, their stomachs slashed to prevent them floating to the surface. Most were cut into pieces and buried in a a quarry.
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said he did not believe Rodrigo Duterte was capable of ordering the killings and investigations proved him innocent.
The existence of the “Davao Death Squads” has never been proven, but the term is familiar in the Philippines and has played a part in Duterte’s meteoric rise to the presidency as a no-nonsense crimebuster.
The United Nations and United States have expressed concern about his latest crackdown. The president has told them not to interfere, using lurid language.
Paolo Duterte issued a statement dismissing Matobato’s testimony as “all based on hearsays”.
Prospero Nograles, a former congressman, denied Matobato’s account of the abduction and execution of his four former bodyguards in Davao. “My security detail are soldiers and are still alive,” he said.
Little is known about Matobato, who volunteered to give testimony in a senate investigation led by Leila de Lima, a former justice minister who has denounced Duterte’s crackdown.
De Lima has yet to say why she did not seek to prosecute Duterte over the Davao killings when she was justice minister in the previous administration, when the former hitman first came to her for protection.
Matobato told the hearing he had once served as a paramilitary who fought Maoist rebels. He said he decided to tell what he knew about the Davao death squads after being made a “fall guy” in the killing of a businessman in the city.