The Philippine government’s review of dozens of deadly drug war operations has cast doubt on police claims they acted in “self-defence”, a top official said on October 20.

Secretary of Justice Menardo Guevarra announced this month that around 154 officers had been identified for “possible criminal liability” over police operations carried out during President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.

Most of the 52 cases reviewed by the Department of Justice (DoJ) and made public on October 20 were drug war operations that ended in the fatal shooting of the suspect.

“Most … indicate circumstances that do not support the police officers’ claim of self-defence,” Guevarra told AFP in a text message.

“That is why we have endorsed these cases to the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] for a proper case build-up.”

Most of the officers involved in the cases had been recommended for demotion or temporary suspension by the police internal affairs service.

In one incident, the suspect was shot 15 times after allegedly firing at police, who received a 31-day suspension from duty.

Guevarra last year told the UN Human Rights Council that an inter-agency review of 5,655 deadly anti-drug operations was under way.

His announcement came after the UN human rights office released a damning report on the drug war.

Carlos Conde, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for the Philippines, said the reviewed cases showed the drug war was an “illegal, murderous state policy”.

Duterte was elected in 2016 on a promise to get rid of the Philippines’ drug problem, openly ordering police to kill drug suspects if officers’ lives were in danger.

At least 6,191 people have died in more than 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since July 2016, according to the latest official data.

Rights groups estimate tens of thousands of mostly poor men have been killed in the crackdown.

International Criminal Court (ICC) judges last month authorised a full-blown investigation into the anti-narcotics campaign, saying it resembled an illegitimate and systematic attack on civilians.

Guevarra told AFP that the DoJ’s actions were not “to impress or influence the ICC, but because it is the right and just thing to do”.

“Time and resources permitting, the DoJ will also look into the files of the thousands of other cases where no liability was found [by police internal affairs],” he said.

While defending the drug war, police chief General Guillermo Eleazar on October 20 urged victims to “cooperate in holding policemen who committed abuses accountable for their action”.

Three Philippine policemen were sentenced in 2018 to decades in prison for murdering a teenager during an anti-narcotics sweep, the first and only conviction so far against officers carrying out Duterte’s war on drugs.

Duterte said this month he would prepare his defence against an ICC probe, after previously insisting he would not cooperate.