MANILA — He was a member of a hit squad that killed hundreds over the years, taking part in about 50 of the murders himself. One victim was fed to crocodiles, he recalled, and four others were hanged and thrown into the sea.
The self-described hit man, Edgar Matobato, said that Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, presided over the extrajudicial killings of about 1,000 criminals and political opponents when he was mayor of Davao City for most of the past two decades — even ordering some of the killings himself.
“We were tasked to kill criminals every day, including [drug] pushers and snatchers,” Matobato said Thursday at a televised Senate hearing investigating extrajudicial killings in Davao City.
Duterte’s promise during his presidential campaign to pursue his antidrug push nationally has alarmed human rights groups, which fear that extrajudicial killings are eroding the rule of law in the Philippines, an important US ally in Asia.
International leaders have also expressed concern, including President Obama, who has urged Duterte to observe the rule of law and human rights.
In his testimony, Matobato, 57, said he was appointed to the death squad, originally known as the Lambada Boys, after Duterte was first elected mayor of Davao in 1988. He said that the squad operated with the tacit approval of the Davao police.
In his most explosive remarks, Matobato said that he had heard Duterte personally order some of the killings.
A spokesman for the president, Martin Andanar, denied the charges Thursday, saying of Duterte: “I don’t think he is capable of giving those orders.”
Duterte has a history of provocative remarks about criminal justice, including his assertion in 2009 that crime suspects were “a legitimate target of assassination.”
Rights groups have long accused him of being complicit in hundreds of extrajudicial killings in Davao. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights said that from 2005 to 2009, the Davao Death Squad had killed 206 people, including 107 who had criminal records or were suspected of crimes.
The hearing Thursday was led by Senator Leila de Lima, a former chairwoman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent government body that has investigated police killings in Davao and is looking at a new spate of deaths nationwide.
De Lima, a former secretary of justice, has also criticized Duterte for a nationwide spike in extrajudicial killings since he became president that he has encouraged — vowing, for example, to kill 100,000 criminals within six months of taking office.
“Perhaps we can link what is happening now to what happened in Davao City in the 1990s until the present, and how the Philippines now mirrors the city of Davao under the two-decade rule of Mayor Duterte,” de Lima said at the hearing.
Ernesto Abella, a presidential spokesman, said the hearing was “a rehash of issues that have already been addressed in 2009” under de Lima, and that “even then no case was filed against then-Mayor Duterte.”
He added, “Aside from indications that this is a perjured witness, one wonders at the timing of the case, when de Lima is about to face the Senate inquiry on her alleged involvement in the illegal drug case.”
The national police said in a statement Thursday that 1,506 people suspected of being drug dealers or users had been killed by police in the campaign since Duterte took office and that 1,571 additional murders over the same period were under investigation.
Duterte has responded to criticism by going on the offensive.
This month, he called Obama a “son of a whore” and threatened to repeat the slur in person if Obama challenged him on extrajudicial deaths as the two crossed paths at a regional meeting in Laos.
Duterte has also accused de Lima of taking drug cartel money — a charge she denied — and suggested that she hang herself.
Joseph Franco, a research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who has studied the Philippine military establishment, said that allegations about the Davao Death Squad had never been aired so publicly at a high-level Senate hearing.
“This will be a test case,” he said in an e-mail. “We shall see if Matobato’s testimony creates the condition to remove the chilling effect” that Duterte’s “clan” had long exerted on potential witnesses.
Death squads have also killed gang members and children in Davao, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a 2009 report on extrajudicial violence in the Philippines, citing interviews with dozens of the victims’ relatives.
The report said impunity for such crimes in Davao and elsewhere was “nearly total.”
In 2013, Matobato said, he tried to leave the death squad. “I wanted to work decently, and my conscience was bothering me,” he said. “Innocent people were being killed.”
His handlers tortured him, he added, but eventually let him go.