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Philippine anti-drug crackdown suffers legal setback

Philippine anti-drug crackdown suffers legal setback

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday prohibited a group of police officers from entering a slum community to prevent them from threatening villagers who have accused them of ruthlessly killing four residents in an anti-drug raid, in the latest setback for the president's bloody crackdown on illegal drugs.

Court spokeswoman Gleo Guerra said the temporary order was aimed at protecting villagers who petitioned the court last week to stop police anti-drug raids in the Payatas community and help them obtain police records to prove the slain men were not drug dealers and did not fight back or provoke the police to open fire.

Court justices asked a lower appeals court to handle the petition but issued a temporary protection order barring four officers, who carried out the deadly raid in August, and their superiors from entering an area one kilometre (half a mile) around the petitioners' homes and workplaces in Payatas, a garbage dump community in the Manila metropolis.

While the Supreme Court order applies only to a small poor community, it sets a precedent that could encourage others to seek court action against abuses committed by government enforcers of President Rodrigo Duterte's crackdown on illegal drugs, which has left more than 7,000 drug suspects dead, including many slain in clashes with police, since he took office in June.

The crackdown has alarmed Western governments, U.N. officials and human rights watchdogs, which have accused policemen of extrajudicial killings. Duterte and police officials have denied the allegations, saying the deaths of at least 35 policemen and three soldiers prove drug suspects have fought back during raids.

"There was no legal remedy available before," said lawyer Romel Bagares of Centerlaw, a legal group which filed the court petition for the Payatas villagers. "This shows that the Supreme Court is the last bastion of democracy and that it's serious about protecting constitutional rights."

The four policemen shot five villagers during a raid in Payatas, but one of them, Efren Morillo, survived and denied police allegations that he and his friends were drug dealers and fought back, according to the petition.

Morillo, a 28-year-old vegetable vendor, and the four slain men were shot with their hands bound. Three were ordered to kneel on the ground at the back of a shanty and were shot as they pleaded for their lives, the petition said.

Morillo and relatives of the dead men asked the court to order police to give them access to surveillance reports and other documents to prove they were innocent.

The court order came a day after national police chief Director-General Ronald Dela Rosa indefinitely stopped all police anti-drug raids and disbanded police anti-narcotics units after the anti-drug crackdown was used as a cover by a group of rogue officers to kidnap and kill a South Korean man for money.

The widely publicized scandal prompted Dela Rosa to form a counter-intelligence force to cleanse the 170,000-strong police force of criminals and corrupt officers. He has tendered his resignation twice but Duterte, who has pledged to defend police enforcing his crackdown, has ordered him to stay on.

Jim Gomez, The Associated Press