Philippine senators deride witness behind Duterte 'death squad' link

September 16, 2016 8:55 AM EDT

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to soldiers at the military's Scout Ranger Camp Tecson in San Miguel, Bulacan in northern Philippines September 15, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro


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By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine senators cast doubt on the credibility of a self-confessed hit-man on Friday after he testified to seeing the country's president kill a man and order assassinations during his two decades as mayor of the once restive Davao City.

Edgar Matobato, 57, volunteered to appear at a televised senate hearing on Thursday and told a panel investigating President Rodrigo Duterte's current drugs war that in the 1990s, he had seen the then Davao mayor order killings and pepper a man's body with submachine gun fire.

Duterte has yet to comment on the testimony but his office and his political allies have dismissed it as baseless.

Little is known about Matobato, whose senate appearance was a hot topic on social media and radio stations on Friday. He had said he was a member of a "Davao death squad" which had killed hundreds of suspected criminals "like chickens", chopped up their bodies, and even fed one man to a crocodile.

Senators Panfilo Lacson, Aquilino Pimentel and Alan Peter Cayetano were among numerous lawmakers who said the witness could not be taken seriously.

"There are many lapses in his testimonies," Lacson said. "Like in baseball, I was counting his strike-outs."

Duterte won an election in May promising to wipe out drugs and drug dealers.

Since he took office in June, about 2,500 people have been killed in his "war on drugs". About 900 died in police operations and the rest authorities say were "deaths under investigation", a term human rights activists say is a euphemism for vigilante and extrajudicial killings.

National police chief, Ronald Dela Rosa called Matobato a "false witness" and said death squads never existed in Davao.

He also said Duterte's anti-narcotics crusade had cut the supply of drugs by 80-90 percent and police were "removing the fear of crime and violence in the hearts of our countrymen".

Matobato's whereabouts on Friday were not known.

'NOT LYING'

The senate leadership turned down a request from Leila de Lima, a senator heading the panel looking into Duterte's drugs war, for Matobato to be taken into protective custody, saying his testimony was not related to the ongoing drugs crackdown.

De Lima said Matobato's testimony showed a clear pattern from the hundreds being killed in Duterte's current campaign to the more than 1,000 mysterious deaths rights groups documented in Davao between 1988 and 2013.

She conceded Matobato could be wrong about some dates, but added: "My impression is that he is not lying."

Some senators have questioned why as justice secretary in 2014, when Matobato was in a witness-protection program, de Lima had filed no cases against Duterte.

The president has launched blistering verbal attacks on de Lima, accusing her of being on the payroll of drugs gangs, which she denies.

Separately, eight prisoners were transferred to a high security military camp on Friday in preparation for giving testimony in a lower house investigation into De Lima's alleged drugs ties.

That congressional hearing is due to take place on Tuesday, coinciding with De Lima's plan to present more witnesses for her senate investigation.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the United Nations should look into the drugs war and be allowed to interview witnesses like Matobato.

"President Duterte can't be expected to investigate himself," Brad Adams, its Asia director, said in a statement.

"Otherwise, Filipinos may never know if the president was directly responsible for extrajudicial killings."

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)



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