MANILA (The Straits Times/ANN): Even for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the sight of an off-duty policeman killing in cold blood a mother and a son she was desperately trying to protect was too brutal.
"I don't think that you can escape the rigours of justice because it was caught on TV. Even I am dumbfounded... That's unfair and too brutal," Duterte said during his televised Cabinet meeting on Monday night (Dec 21).
He said he had seen the five-minute video of Sergeant Jonel Nuezca, 46, shooting at close range Sonya Gregorio, 52, and her son Anthony Gregorio, 25, on Sunday afternoon in Paniqui town, Tarlac province.
Police reports said the scuffle began after Anthony set off an air cannon made out of a PVC pipe, creating loud noises, and deteriorated into a heated argument over a land dispute.
Throughout the incident, Sonya had her arms wrapped tightly around her son to prevent Nuezca from taking him.
Seconds before the shooting, Nuezca's daughter, a minor, approached Sonya, slapped the woman's arm, and told her to let go of her son.
"Just let go of him! Just let go!" the girl shouted. Sonya told her: "You tell (your father) to let go."
When the girl shouted that her father is a policeman, the woman replied "I don't care!" and taunted her.
Nuezca asked Sonya: "Do you want me to end you right now?" Then without warning, he pulled out his 9mm pistol and shot her in the head, with dozens watching and at least two people taking videos with their phones. He then shot the son, also in the head.
Just before he fled the scene, he again shot Sonya in the head as she was sprawled on the ground.
The brutal murders provoked a wave of outrage directed at the government and once again cast a harsh light on perceived abuses by policemen purportedly emboldened by a president said to be mollycoddling officers carrying out his bloody drug war.
But Duterte said Nuezca crossed the line.
"You do not follow the law, you salvage, you kill, then I'm sorry. That is not part of our agreement on how we should do our work... Lock him up, and don't let him out," he said.
He described Nuezca as an "aberration" in the police force. "He has something wrong in the head," he said.
But the president's critics insisted the incident was not an "isolated incident", as his allies had asserted, and that it should lead to police reforms and a halt to his controversial crackdown on the drug trade.
Duterte has stood firmly behind the police, as the death toll in his drug war soared past 8,000.
Rights groups have reported higher numbers, and said the violence has continued even as the country remains under a coronavirus lockdown announced in March.
Duterte attributed most of the killings to turf wars among drug gangs, and exonerated policemen involved by saying they merely shot back when fired upon.
He has said he will pardon any officer found guilty of murder while carrying out his crackdown.
Critics have said such high-level rhetoric is being interpreted within the police force as "permission to kill".
"The government knows that the bloody murder of a mother and son in Tarlac is not an isolated case anymore. Bloodlust cops are everywhere," Representative Ruffy Biazon told online news site Politiko. He said it was "a symptom of what could be ailing" the police force".
Representative Stella Luz Quimbo filed a resolution on Tuesday seeking a congressional probe into the killings as these relate to the "tactical knowledge and mental fitness" of the country's 200,000-strong police force.
But Brigadier-General Ildebrandi Usana, spokesman of the Philippine National Police (PNP), said there was no need for that.
"This is an isolated case. (A case) has already been filed, and (Nuezca's) dismissal will be forthcoming. The PNP will have to move on from there," he told ABS-CBN News.
He said the police force already "have had many changes that had already been initiated".
Over 4,800 erring policemen have been dismissed, and some 17,000 are facing administrative cases, he disclosed. - The Straits Times/Asia News