MANILA: A former Filipino militiaman testified before the country's Senate on Thursday that President Rodrigo Duterte, when he was still a city mayor, ordered him and other members of a liquidation squad to kill criminals and opponents in gangland-style assaults that left about 1,000 dead.
Edgar Matobato, 57, told the nationally televised Senate committee hearing that he heard Duterte order some of the killings and acknowledged he himself carried out about 50 of the abductions and deadly assaults, including a suspected kidnapper who they fed to a crocodile in 2007 in southern Davao del Sur province.
The Senate committee inquiry was being led by Sen. Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of Duterte's anti-drug campaign that has left more than 3,000 suspected drug users and dealers dead since he assumed the presidency in June. Duterte has accused de Lima of involvement in illegal drugs, alleging that she used to have a driver who took money from detained drug lords. She has denied the allegations.
The killings of the suspected drug dealers have sparked concerns in the Philippines and among U.N. and U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, who have urged Duterte's government to stop the killings and ensure his anti-drug war complies with human rights laws and the rule of law.
Duterte has rejected the criticisms, questioning the right of the U.N., the U.S. and Obama to raise human rights issues, when U.S. forces, for example, had massacred Muslims in the country's south in the early 1900s as part of a pacification campaign.
"Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers," Matobato said under oath, adding some of the targets were not criminals but opponents of Duterte and one of his sons in Davao city.
The killings he said he has knowledge of happened starting in 1988, when Duterte first became mayor, to 2013, when he expressed his desire to leave the death squad, prompting his colleagues to implicate him criminally in one killing.
Presidential spokesman Martin Andanar rejected the allegations, saying government investigations into Duterte's time as mayor of Davao had already gone nowhere because of a lack of real evidence and witnesses.
De Lima and Philippine human rights officials and advocates have previously said that potential witnesses refused to testify against Duterte when he was still mayor because they were afraid they would be killed.
There was no immediate reaction from Duterte, who has denied any role in extra-judicial killings when he was the longtime mayor of Davao and after he assumed the presidency in June.
Matobato said the victims in Davao allegedly ranged from petty criminals to people associated with Duterte's opponents, including a wealthy businessman from central Cebu province who was killed in 2014 by a gunman in his office in Davao city allegedly because of a feud with Duterte's son over a woman.
Other victims were a suspected foreign terrorist, who Matobato said he strangled then chopped into pieces and buried in a quarry in 2002. Another was a radio commentator, Jun Pala, who was critical of Duterte and was killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen while walking home in 2003.
After a 1993 bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral, Matobato said Duterte ordered him and his colleagues to launch attacks on mosques in Davao city. He testified he hurled a grenade at one mosque but there were no casualties because the attacks were carried out when no one was praying.
Some of the victims were shot and dumped on Davao streets or buried in three unmarked graves, he said, adding some were disposed of in the sea with their stomachs cut open and their bodies tied to concrete blocks so they would not float.
"They were killed like chickens," said Matobato, who added he backed away from the killings after feeling guilty and entered a government witness-protection program.
He left the protection program when Duterte became president, fearing he would be killed. He said he decided to surface now because "I wanted the people to know so the killings will stop."
Matobato's testimony set off a tense exchange between senators allied with Duterte and those critical of him.
Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who ran unsuccessfully for vice president in May's elections, accused Matobato of being part of a plot to unseat Duterte.
"I'm testing to see if you were brought here to bring down this government," Cayetano said.
De Lima eventually declared Cayetano, who was not a member of the committee, "out of order" and ordered Senate security personnel to restrain him.
Another senator, former national police chief Panfilo Lacson, warned Matobato that his admissions that he was involved in killings could land him in jail.
"You can be jailed with your revelations," Lacson said. "You have no immunity."