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Meet The Man Trying To Hold Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte Accountable


If Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is ever held to account for the thousands of extrajudicial killings in his war on drugs - and that is a big if - it will largely be because of the dogged determination of one man. Our reporter Michael Sullivan found this man in Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Meet Jude Sabio, arguably the most hated man in the Philippines.

JUDE SABIO: I would say that is a fair assumption.


SABIO: Because I had the guts to file a case against President Duterte in the ICC.

SULLIVAN: That's the International Criminal Court in The Hague whose prosecutor said in February she had launched a preliminary investigation into Duterte's drug war, which human rights groups say has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

SABIO: I felt elated and vindicated because many critics said that the case would just be thrown into the garbage. The ICC accepted the case and in fact announced a preliminary examination in record time.

SULLIVAN: Before the ICC decision, the still-popular Duterte had openly mocked the court, daring it to come after him. But after the ICC decision, Duterte announced the Philippines' withdrawal from the court altogether and urged other nations to do the same. That made Jude Sabio smile, too.

SABIO: I view that behavior of President Duterte as an indication of his fear of the ICC. He fears the ICC because he knows he is guilty.

SULLIVAN: So how did a low-profile litigator get involved with Duterte in the ICC in the first place? Blind luck and a bad ticker.

SABIO: I underwent angioplasty in June 2016. While I was recuperating, I heard about Edgar Matobato. And I believed in the testimony of Edgar Matobato.

SULLIVAN: Matobato was a self-described hit man for the so-called Davao Death Squad that operated during Duterte's time as mayor there, a man who testified before the Philippine Senate along with a former Davao policeman about their alleged involvement in the death squad. When Sabio heard that Matobato had no lawyer, he volunteered. And the testimony of the two men became the basis of the complaint to the ICC.

SABIO: Based on the testimony of Edgar Matobato and Arturo Lascanas, it is already an established fact that there was a system of death squad killings in Davao City. And based on the pronouncements of President Duterte, when he was still mayor, when he was a presidential candidate and when he was even a president, it is still clear that he continued the system in the war on drugs.

SULLIVAN: Matobato is in hiding. Lascanas has fled the country. And Sabio lives in fear, too, after receiving numerous death threats since the case was filed.

SABIO: I'm very reclusive nowadays. I do not go so much in public places. Specifically I'm afraid that I will be killed. Anytime somebody will be coming out and pump a bullet into my head.

SULLIVAN: Duterte's spokesman declined to comment for this story but in the past has called the ICC complaint the work of domestic enemies of the state. Duterte supporters dismiss Sabio as a political stooge. Sabio vehemently denies this. And he's not alone.

TONY LA VINA: He sincerely believes in this cause. And certainly on the human rights violations in the war against drugs I am with Jude.

SULLIVAN: That's Tony La Vina, who teaches law at the University of the Philippines.

LA VINA: First of all, he wants to stop the killings. Jude is just being stubborn about looking for all the means to do this. And he believes that you can't do much anymore domestically. That's why you have to resort to the International Criminal Court.

SULLIVAN: It's a long process that could take years. The ICC has received thousands of complaints since its inception. Fewer than a dozen have gone to trial. Sabio doesn't care. He thinks the case will go to trial and that Duterte will be found guilty. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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