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EXCLUSIVE: Despite Hitler parallel, Israel sold Duterte guns for drug war

In this Thursday, April 19, 2018, file photo, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte jokes to photographers as he holds an Israeli-made Galil rifle.
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File
Human rights groups estimate Duterte's anti-drugs war has left at least 12,000 dead

An Israeli weapons manufacturer sold hundreds of assault rifles to anti-drug police in the Philippines just months after President Rodrigo Duterte compared himself to Hitler and said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts, information gathered by i24NEWS shows.

The sale was just one of several by Israel Weapons Industries to frontline forces in Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illicit drugs that has left over 4,000 people dead at the hands of police and thousands more killed by vigilantes egged on by the president, according to official statistics and human rights groups.

"Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts [in the Philippines]. I'd be happy to slaughter them," Duterte said in September 2016, understating by half the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Following outrage from Germany and global Jewish groups, Duterte -- who is set to make an official visit to Israel in early September -- apologized for equating himself with the Nazi dictator but insisted he still wanted to kill three million people.

Despite Duterte’s alarming comments, a “preliminary examination” of the drug deaths by the International Criminal Court, and widespread warnings from human rights groups over the police killings, Ramat HaSharon-based Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) last year won a tender to supply the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) with 560 of its Galil basic assault rifles, according to the organization and tender documents.

AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The anti-drug agency’s chief Aaron Aquino said in April that the guns were “expected to boost the agency’s capability in facing head-on the drug problem which continue[s] to destroy precious lives and is the root cause of numerous criminality in the country.”

IWI, a stalwart of the Israeli weapons industry, also won two tenders to supply 1,920 pistols and 313 assault rifles to the Philippines National Police (PNP) in the midst of Duterte’s crackdown, procurement documents reviewed by i24NEWS show.

The company bid unsuccessfully for at least two more police tenders, according to the same records.

The Israeli government gave the deals a green-light through its defense export control system. Carlos Conde, the Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch, was concerned this sent the wrong signal to Duterte’s administration.

“Given this incontrovertible fact that the PNP and PDEA are involved in mass human rights violations related to the drug war this deal selling firearms cannot be interpreted as anything else than an endorsement of this human rights catastrophe,” he said in a phone interview from Manila.

“The very least the [Israeli government] can do is due diligence to ensure that these weapons are not used for human rights violations and do some checks and accountability … to make sure that these weapons are used in accordance [with] international law.”

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

An IWI spokeswoman declined to respond to inquiries regarding the tenders, saying that “due to governmental regulations we are not allowed to disclose any details regarding IWI’s activities.”

In response to questions about IWI’s sales in the Philippines, the Israeli defense ministry said it “does not publish its defense export policy, and certainly does not address specific licensing requests.”

It added that its export control policy is governed by law “in order to safeguard the political, security and strategic interests of the State of Israel. The control of defense exports is carried out in accordance with the [relevant] treaties and supervisory regimes and is implemented in light of international standards.”

The export licensing process “attaches great importance to the human rights aspect of the destination countries for defense exports,” the ministry said.

A spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, which provides advice during the export licensing process, said: “we do not comment in the media on security related issues.”

In 2016 the US State Department reportedly baulked at allowing a sale of 26,000 American assault rifles to Philippines police, citing human rights concerns.

That prompted the notoriously potty-mouthed Duterte to brand the US government “monkeys” and “fools” and said he would look to Israel and South Korea for weapons instead.

‘A lethal combination’

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Duterte launched his crusade against illicit drugs shortly after coming to power in June 2016. Since then authorities claim 4,354 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed in police operations. In most cases police claim they opened fire on suspects in self-defense.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and journalists have said that police, with Duterte’s backing, routinely plant evidence and tamper with crime scenes. Police deny the allegations.

At the president’s urging, so-called vigilantes have killed at least 7,000 more suspected drug users or traffickers, Filipino and international rights group have estimated. Most of these extrajudicial killings are not investigated by officials.

In October last year Duterte appeared to cede a sliver of ground to his vast array of critics by putting the national drug enforcement agency in charge of the bloody campaign.

Observers have noted a drop in the number of deaths in the months since the much smaller organization was put at the helm, however earlier this week Duterte dismissed speculation the drug war would be put on ice.

"Let me begin by putting it bluntly: the war against illegal drugs is far from over," he vowed in his State of the Nation speech. "It will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began."

HRW’s Conde said Duterte’s address portended a new spike in violence.

“This president has said a lot of pretty nasty things against suspected drug users and we see what happens when he said that [in the past],” Conde told i24NEWS.

He argued that Duterte’s directive coupled with “giving more arms to the PDEA” is “a lethal combination.”

Admired by police chief

Philippines National Police Facebook page

IWI won the tender to supply the PDEA with Galil Ace assault rifles in June 2017, according to the agency’s annual procurement plan. By that time, thousands were already dead in the Philippines at the hands of police or vigilantes.

The weapons only appear to have been delivered in April this year, when Duterte was pictured brandishing a different variety of Galil rifle at a police ceremony.

IWI has entered the Philippine market through joint ventures with local gun retailer R. Espineli Trading, according to the PNP’s procurement records and Espineli’s Facebook page.

In addition to the sale to PDEA, the Israeli and Philippine partners will also soon furnish police with 1,920 pistols worth 53,664,000 Philippines pesos (US$1,007,246). Another tender won late last year means the two will also provide assault rifles intended for use by the Marawi task force, a police unit set up to help secure and rehabilitate the southern region that has been ravaged by an Islamic State insurgency.

IWI has marketed its wares to the highest echelons of the PNP. A video uploaded by a local journalist to YouTube of a police event in January shows a man and woman of Western appearance helping the then-national chief of police Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa -- the chief executor of the drug war -- practice shooting one of the company’s Negev light machine guns.

One of the two is wearing an IWI T-shirt. The company did not answer when asked to confirm they are the company’s employees.

Onlookers can be heard giggling as the burly police chief is propelled backward by the weapon’s firepower. Pictures from the same event published on Facebook by the PNP show Dela Rosa admiring a table brimming with IWI’s Negevs.

While the police described the occasion as a showcase of recent acquisitions, i24NEWS was unable to locate details of any sale of the Negev guns.

In another photo, the IWI employees pose with a large group of men dressed in paramilitary uniforms and make the hand gesture of an outstretched fist that has become Duterte’s symbol.

Two Filipinos wearing IWI shirts can also be seen in the photographs.

Last year, Human Rights Watch said the gesture “symbolizes a purposeful attack by Duterte on rule of law that has inflicted a human rights calamity on thousands of Filipinos."

Australia’s foreign spy chief was castigated by his local press last August when Duterte’s office published pictures of the two posing together making the hand gesture. Australia’s foreign minister said she was “confident it was not the director general's idea."

IWI did not respond to a request to comment on the photo.

While there is not yet a confirmed date or itinerary for Duterte’s early September visit to Israel, a Ynet report said “security” would be on the agenda and he would be accompanied by a delegation of Filipino business people.

The Philippines embassy in Israel has not responded to a request for confirmation of the visit and details about the president’s agenda.

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