MANILA — In an extraordinary hearing in the Philippine Senate, a witness claimed Thursday that before Rodrigo Duterte became president, he paid a squad of hit men to carry out summary executions that involved feeding a body to a crocodile, chopping up corpses and dumping slashed bodies into the sea.
The witness, Edgar Matobato, 57, said he was one of those hit men in the southern Philippine city of Davao, where Duterte served as mayor before winning the presidency in May. Matobato spoke to Philippine lawmakers at Senate hearings investigating a recent wave of extrajudicial killings that have claimed more than 3,000 lives as part of the president’s anti-drug campaign.
The dramatic scene at the Senate showed a country divided at home and struggling to keep its balance on the global stage.
Duterte swept to power this spring promising to crack down on crime, just as he did as the longtime mayor of Davao, where he earned a reputation for strongman tactics and was christened “the death squad mayor” by Human Rights Watch for allegedly ordering extrajudicial killings.
The deaths have been condemned by the United Nations and questioned by President Obama, who called off a meeting with Duterte at an Asian summit this month after the Philippine president used an epithet while criticizing Obama. Duterte has shrugged off criticism, instead railing against U.S. colonialism in the saltiest possible terms and dismissing his enemies as weak.
Matobato said he spent years working as part of the “Davao Death Squad,” a group of killers associated with Duterte’s time as the city’s mayor.
Matobato’s claims, which have not been independently confirmed, linked Duterte and his son Paolo Duterte to a list of crimes worthy of a gangster film.
He said that he and fellow assassins referred to Duterte, then a mayor, using the code name “Charlie Mike,” and that Duterte ordered them to kill dozens of people including drug pushers, the dance-instructor boyfriend of Duterte’s sister and a millionaire hotelier.
They left some bodies in the street or buried them in pits, he said. Other bodies were dumped at sea with their stomachs slashed so they would not float.
“People in Davao City were like chickens — they were being killed without any reason,” Matobato said.
The hearing’s chairwoman, Sen. Leila de Lima, is a longtime critic of Duterte’s human rights record. She said she saw the testimony as a step toward truth and justice for victims of the president’s alleged purges, past and present.
“People deserve to know,” she said.
A Duterte ally who was present at the hearing, Sen. Alan Cayetano, dismissed Matobato’s sworn testimony as “lies,” questioning his credibility and casting the whole process as a politically motivated plot against the president.
A spokesman for the president denied the allegation. Duterte has yet to comment on Thursday’s hearing.
Matobato is the first member of the Davao Death Squad to testify publicly. He told the hearing that he was recruited in 1998 to be part of a small team known as the “Lambada Boys.” The team was later expanded to include police officers, he said.
During this year’s presidential campaign, Duterte did not shy from his “death squad” moniker, promising that he would kill 100,000 criminals in six months. “Am I the death squad? True. That is true,” he said on television in May.
“When I become president, I’ll order the police and the military to find these people and kill them. The funeral parlors will be packed. . . . I’ll supply the dead bodies,” he said during the campaign.
Duterte has more recently tried to distance himself from extrajudicial killings and summary executions.
But the president’s undiplomatic comments and erratic approach to foreign policy have worried the United States.
The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, is a close American ally. With China pressing its claims to most of the South China Sea, Manila and Washington have for several years been moving toward closer military cooperation.
Duterte’s rise puts that in question. After his profanity-laced comments about Obama before the recent summit, Duterte called for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from the island of Mindanao. He also announced that he would buy weapons from the Chinese.
It’s not clear how much of that is bluster. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Molly Koscina, said Thursday that the U.S. side has not received any communication regarding the presence of Special Forces on the southern island.
“We continue to focus on our broad relationship with the Philippines, and will work together in the many areas of mutual interest including counterterrorism, to improve the livelihoods of the Philippine people and uphold our shared democratic values,” she said.
Michael Joe Delizo contributed to this report.