MANILA, Philippines — A Philippine senator who led an investigation into the president’s bloody anti-drug campaign was ousted Monday from the justice committee in a vote that human rights advocates said could derail accountability in the crackdown.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies led the vote that removed Sen. Leila de Lima from the Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which has spearheaded an inquiry into the widespread killings of drug suspects that have alarmed President Barack Obama, U.N. officials and human rights watchdogs.
More than 3,000 drug suspects have died in the crackdown since Duterte assumed the presidency on June 30. More than 600,000 others have surrendered to authorities for fear they also would be killed.
De Lima’s ouster “is a blatant and craven move to derail accountability for the appalling death toll from President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive ‘war on drugs,'” U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said. “The Senate is showing greater interest in covering up allegations of state-sanctioned murder than in exposing them.”
The group called on senators opposed to Duterte’s tough tactics to seek de Lima’s reinstatement.
Senators allied with Duterte, however, said the investigation into possible police abuses in the killings would continue under Sen. Richard Gordon, who was designated to replace de Lima.
De Lima has had a running feud with Duterte. As the former head of the government’s human rights commission, she investigated Duterte’s alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings of criminals when he was mayor of southern Davao city, where he built a name for his tough crime-busting style.
“I know that the president is behind this,” de Lima told reporters.
Duterte has accused de Lima of involvement in illegal drugs, alleging that her former driver took money from detained drug lords. She has denied the allegations, but the president’s allies in the House of Representatives are to launch an inquiry Tuesday.
Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, a key ally of Duterte, said in a speech that de Lima used her committee to tarnish the image of the president before the international community. Boxing star Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who backs Duterte’s crackdown, then initiated a move to remove de Lima and her members from the committee.
In a committee hearing last week, de Lima presented a former Filipino militiaman who testified that Duterte, when he was mayor, ordered him and other members of a hit squad to kill criminals and opponents in gangland-style assaults that left about 1,000 dead.
Cayetano and other senators, however, questioned the credibility of the witness, Edgar Matobato, and de Lima’s intentions. Duterte has not given any reaction to Matobato’s allegations, although his spokesman, Martin Andanar, said past investigations have failed to produce any evidence against Duterte.
Duterte said in a speech late Monday that threats to investigate him locally or by international organizations like the United Nations over possible human rights violations would not stop him from proceeding with the drug crackdown.
“I don’t care whether there are a thousand hearings everywhere,” Duterte said. “I will not stop until the last pushers on the street are fully exterminated.”