Philippine rights chief urges 'death squad' probe

MANILA - The Philippines' human rights chief called on Friday for a political ally of President Benigno Aquino to be investigated over a vigilante "death squad" that carried out hundreds of killings.

Commission on Human Rights chairwoman Loretta Rosales said Rodrigo Duterte, a powerful politician in the south and a member of Aquino's Liberal Party, had allowed or accepted the killings in Davao city when he was mayor there.

"Obviously, he tolerated it and for that reason, he must be investigated. For him to just wash his hands and say he had nothing to do with it, is hogwash," Rosales told AFP.

Duterte was mayor of Davao, the major trading city in the southern Philippines, from 1988 to 1998 and again from 2001 to 2010.

Hundreds of people were killed during his time as mayor, with rights groups alleging government-run vigilante groups murdered all types of alleged criminals, including street children, in an effort to wipe out crime.

Following an investigation that began three years ago, the commission said it found at least 206 killings of suspected criminals attributed to the "Davao Death Squads" from 2005 to 2009.

"These killings constituted a systematic practice of extra-judicial killings, which can be attributed or attributable to the media-dubbed Davao Death Squad," the commission said.

The commission filed a resolution this week with the government's Ombudsman and the Justice Department, calling for an investigation into Duterte and the killings.

Previous investigations into the killings had been unsuccessful because witnesses were afraid to come forward and local officials denied any knowledge, the commission said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the commission's resolution, saying it was "an important opportunity for the Aquino administration to show that it is serious about holding officials accountable for the worst abuses".

Human Rights Watch said in a major report on the issue in 2009 that there had been almost a thousand extrajudicial killings over the previous 10 years in Davao.

Duterte remains a powerful figure in Davao. He had to step down as mayor in 2010 because of term limits. But his daughter replaced him and he is vice mayor.

Duterte has always denied involvement in the killings.

When asked for comment on the human rights commission's call for Duterte to be investigated, two of Aquino's spokespeople referred queries to the interior ministry. The interior minister said he could not comment.

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