MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A U.S.-based human rights group said Wednesday that a "death squad" targeting criminal suspects in a southern Philippine city was organized by a former mayor and was responsible for nearly 300 killings in recent years.
Human Rights Watch said in a report that it had documented at least a dozen of the 298 killings from January 2007 to March 2013 based largely on accounts of former hit men, witnesses, relatives of victims and police officers in Tagum City, the capital of Davao del Norte province.
Former Mayor Rey Uy denied the allegations and said they were based on testimony coerced and paid for by drug dealers and illegal gamblers.
Human Rights Watch said President Benigno Aquino III has largely ignored the killings.
Presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said Aquino had "affirmed the government's commitment to render justice to victims of extrajudicial killings dating back to those that were perpetrated in previous administrations."
Coloma said cases that were dismissed by prosecutors were ordered refiled by Aquino and that "interagency work to complete case buildup that will meet the standards of judicial proof will be pursued vigorously."
Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, said there was "compelling evidence" against Uy, who reportedly called the targets — suspected drug dealers, petty criminals, street children and others — "weeds" that had to be uprooted in a "perverse form of crime control." Death squad members who have quit were also targets, Kine said.
"The Tagum death squad's activities imposed a fear-enforced silence in Tagum City that allowed the killers and their bosses to literally get away with murder," Kine said in a statement released by Human Rights Watch after it released its 71-page report.
The statement said Uy, his close aides and police officers had "hired, equipped and paid for an operation that at its height consisted of 14 hit men and accomplices" since his first term as mayor in 1998. His son lost the election to succeed him after he stepped down in 2013.
Aquino has "failed to condemn local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage the unauthorized use of force to rid city streets of 'undesirables,'" the human rights group said.
The group said that according to a former death squad member, hit men were paid 5,000 pesos ($110) for each killing. Uy personally paid the hit men on at least two occasions, Human Rights Watch said.
Uy laughed off the claim. "Everybody knows the house of the mayor, and they come soliciting help for this and that problem. It is easy to point to the mayor," he told The Associated Press.
He suggested that the killings were "vengeance" from the victims of the criminals and rivalry between crime gangs.
"Certain individuals here coerced the so-called witnesses, gave them money to make up stories," he said.
"They don't want me to return to power because if I come back, they will lose their businesses," he said, adding that he plans to run again in the next election.
Human Rights Watch said the death squad also was responsible for the killing of a journalist, a judge, two police officers, a tribal leader, local politicians and businessmen. Uy apparently was unaware of these killings or was told by "handlers" of the gunmen that the victims were involved in drugs to justify the attacks, it said.