Glimmer of Justice for 9-Year-Old Killed in Philippine Drug War

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Glimmer of Justice for 9-Year-Old Killed in Philippine Drug War

Last month, a court accepted the petition of Lenin Baylon’s father seeking to correct the cause of death listed on his death certificate.

Glimmer of Justice for 9-Year-Old Killed in Philippine Drug War
Credit: Depositphotos

The Philippine Court of Appeals yesterday granted the petition of the father of a child killed at the height of the country’s “war on drugs” seeking to correct the cause of death listed on his death certificate – a rare move toward accountability for the bloody law-and-order campaign.

Lenin Baylon, 9, was hit by a stray bullet in Caloocan City on December 2, 2016, during a shoot-out that also killed two women, a police report stated. He died three days before what would have been his 10th birthday. But Lenin’s death certificate had said he died from bronchopneumonia.

In a decision dated November 15, but only made public yesterday, the Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling by a lower court in Caloocan City, which denied the petition of Lenin’s father Rodrigo Baylon to compel the local civil registry to make the necessary correction.

“Considering the aforestated circumstances, let alone the fact that Lenin’s death was caused by a gunshot would has been sufficiently proven, it would indeed be fair and equitable that the genuine cause of Lenin’s death be reflected in the death certificate,” stated the ruling, as reported by ABS-CBN news.

Baylon told a media briefing on Monday that the ruling about his son’s death was “a small victory.”

Lenin was just one of the thousands of victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” an upscaled version of the uncompromising law-and-order policies that he pioneered during his two decades as mayor of Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao.

The government itself acknowledges that 6,252 people were killed during the campaign, but independent estimates put the toll much higher, anywhere from 12,000 to more than 20,000. The International Criminal Court (ICC), which last year announced that it would pursue an investigation into the anti-drug campaign, estimates that between 12,000 and 30,000 people were killed between July 2016 and March 2019, when Duterte withdrew from the court.

While the government depicted those shot during the drug war as violent drug lords who violently resisted arrest, activists claim that many of those shot were unarmed drug users or low-level pushers.

Amid this unaccountable use of state violence, inaccurate death records were not unusual. An investigation published by Reuters in June documented at least 14 other cases of death certificates that said the deceased had succumbed to natural causes such as pneumonia or hypertension, instead of recording their violent death by gunshot. Reuters claimed that it “was not able to establish whether discrepancies in the death certificates it reviewed were intentional, the result of mistakes by the health officials who completed them, or the byproduct of shortcomings in the nation’s death reporting system.”

Somewhat conveniently, however, the lack of accurate death certificates has prevented the families of victims from taking legal action against alleged perpetrators. It added, “Erroneous death records also obscure the true toll of the war on drugs.”

Whether yesterday’s small step toward justice will quicken into a more comprehensive accounting of the excesses of the drug war remains to be seen. Under Duterte’s successor, Ferdinand Marcos, the campaign has been dialed back somewhat. In a television interview in September, Marcos pledged to pursue a less punitive approach to illegal narcotics that will focus on prevention and rehabilitation as much as gunning down suspected drug dealers.

“The war on drugs will continue, but we will have to do it a different way,” Marcos said in the interview, his first since winning the presidency by a landslide in May. “In fact, right now, we are trying to formulate what is the best way for the rehabilitation program. These are all being formulated.”

Whether this involves any meaningful accountability for those responsible, however, is unlikely. Marcos says that he has no plans to rejoin the ICC, nor to cooperate with its investigation into the drug war. His administration (like Duterte’s) insists that it is probing the excesses of the campaign, though civil society groups say that this has involved just a handful of low-level police offenders.

A real pursuit of justice would also involve politically inconvenient confrontations with politicians, including Duterte himself, whom Marcos counts as allies. His preferred approach may well be to quietly abandon the excesses of the drug campaign – and then to “dig a hole and bury the past,” as Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, said in a very different context in the 1990s.

In the absence of any comprehensive legal accounting of the drug war, about the best that the relatives of the thousands of drug war victims can hope for is that accountability proceeds gradually – one enlightened court ruling at a time.