MANILA — The International Criminal Court said Thursday that it was opening a preliminary investigation into accusations that President Rodrigo Duterte and other Philippine officials had committed crimes against humanity in the course of the government’s deadly crackdown on drugs.
Fatou Bensouda, a prosecutor for the international court, said in a statement that the inquiry would gauge whether there was enough evidence to build a case. She said she would be looking at events since July 1, 2016, “in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ campaign.”
“My office undertakes this work with full independence and impartiality,” Bensouda said. “As we do, we hope to count on the full engagement of the relevant national authorities in the Philippines.”
Harry Roque, a spokesman for the Philippine president, said that the government’s crackdown was a “legitimate police operation” and that the president welcomed The Hague-based tribunal’s decision.
“He is sick and tired of being accused of the commission of crimes against humanity,” Roque told reporters in Manila.
In a 77-page complaint filed to the tribunal in April, a Filipino lawyer accused Duterte and 11 other officials of mass murder and crimes against humanity.
He called Duterte the “mastermind” of a campaign of extrajudicial killings that dated to the late 1980s, when he became mayor of the southern city of Davao, and that greatly escalated after he became president.
The lawyer, Jude Josue Sabio, represented two men who said they had been assassins for Duterte in Davao.
“I am elated and vindicated,” Sabio said, adding that he was “confident we will hurdle this first big step, and hopefully a warrant of arrest will be issued by the ICC against Duterte and his cohorts.”
Duterte, who has bragged about personally killing criminals as mayor of Davao, won the presidency promising to fill Manila Bay with the bodies of drug addicts.
After taking office, he urged the police to kill drug suspects and promised to protect officers from prosecution.
Thousands of Filipinos have been killed by the police, in what authorities said were shootouts, or by unidentified gunmen.
Last year, after an outcry over the killings of three teenagers by police officers, Duterte suspended the police operations and put the antidrug campaign in the hands of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. But he put the police back in charge in December.
Last week, police said that 46 people suspected of using or selling drugs had been killed by the police since then.
That brought the police’s official death toll from the campaign to over 4,000, a number much lower than the estimated 12,000 deaths reported by various international and local rights groups.