There is a “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity were committed amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s years-long crackdown on drugs in the Philippines, the International Criminal Court said in a report released this week.

Duterte’s “war on drugs” has left thousands of people dead since he took office in 2016, voted in on promises to stamp out the country’s illegal drug trade.

Human rights groups have raised alarm for years about the violent campaign, saying security forces have often killed suspects with impunity, in what they say in many cases amounts to extrajudicial executions that have left communities traumatized.

Duterte has repeatedly defended the crackdown, saying it is necessary to secure the country and protect civilians from violent drug dealers. He has brushed off calls from foreign countries and local critics to reel in his security forces.

The ICC report said its preliminary investigation focused on events that unfolded between July 2016 and mid-March 2019 as part of Duterte’s war on drugs.

The court in The Hague acknowledged that Philippine officials have claimed that deaths that occurred during the crackdown have been justified but said that “such narrative has been challenged by others, who have contended that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and disproportionate under the circumstances, as to render the resulting killings essentially arbitrary, or extrajudicial, executions.”

Fatou Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, who issued this week’s report, opened the preliminary inquiry into the killings in the Philippines in 2018. That year, Duterte announced his country would withdraw from the ICC, a process that was finalized last year.

The ICC inquiry, he said in 2018, was an attempt to paint him as a “ruthless and heartless violator of human rights.” He said at the time that he intended to arrest Bensouda if she entered the Philippines to pursue an investigation.

Despite the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC, the court “retains jurisdiction over alleged crimes that have occurred on the territory of the Philippines” while it was party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC, the report said.

The inquiry focused on allegations that Duterte and other high-ranking officials, including law enforcement officials, “actively promoted and encouraged the killing of suspected or purported drug users and/or dealers, and in such context, members of law enforcement … and unidentified assailants have carried out thousands of unlawful killings throughout the Philippines,” according to the report.

Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that court officials “can do what they want to do.”

“We do not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC,” he said.

The Philippine government has acknowledged that as of October, nearly 6,000 suspects have been killed in the war on drugs, Reuters reported. Watchdog groups say the true toll is probably far higher, with killings carried out by security forces and vigilantes.

A 2020 report from the U.N. human rights office said the government’s “focus on national security, countering terrorism and illegal drugs has resulted in numerous systematic human rights violations, including killings and arbitrary detention, persistent impunity and the vilification of dissent.”

Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that the campaign ramped up during the pandemic. An analysis by the group determined that there was a 50 percent increase in deaths linked to the war on drugs between April and July this year.

The ICC intends to decide early next year whether it will pursue a full investigation of the alleged drug war abuses in the Philippines.

In the meantime, Duterte has pledged to handle the coronavirus pandemic as he has his war on drugs.

“Together, we shall fight this pandemic with the same fervor as our campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, insurgency and corruption in high places and entrenched parochial interests,” he said in a national address last month. Earlier in the pandemic, he gave police permission to shoot those who violated the national lockdown.

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