A death squad allegedly organised by a former mayor has killed almost 300 alleged drug dealers, petty criminals and street children in the Philippines, according to a report.
Human Rights Watch investigated the involvement of local government officials and police officers in years of murders in the city of Tagum.
The group said it had documented at least a dozen cases from January 2007 to March 2013 using accounts of former hit men, witnesses, police and victims’ relatives.
Rey “Chiong” Uy, the former mayor, denied all allegations and said they were based on testimony gained by coercion and paid for by drug dealers and illegal gamblers.
Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, said there was “compelling evidence” against Mr Uy, who was mayor from 1998 to 2013, although he was not aware of all killings.
He added: “Rey Uy called these citizens ‘weeds.’ He and other city officials and police officers underwrote targeted killings as a perverse form of crime control,” he added.
“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.”
Anyone who had quit the death squad reportedly became targets themselves.
The killings Human Rights Watch documented typically occurred on the streets and often in broad daylight.
The hit men, wearing baseball caps and sunglasses and armed with handguns, would arrive and depart on government-issued motorcycles.
Former assassins told researchers that they would routinely inform local police of an impending targeted killing, so they would not interfere and the police in turn would notify them if anyone was identified by witnesses.
The pressure group claimed that President Benigno Aquino III has largely ignored the killings.
But presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said Mr 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”.
He said cases that were dismissed by prosecutors were ordered to be reviewed by the President.
The statement said Mr 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.
Hit men were allegedly paid 5,000 pesos (£65) for each killing. The report said Uy personally paid the hit men on at least two occasions but he denied the accusation.
“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 in the next election.
The Tagum group was to have started as a crime-fighting unit patterned after the death squad in nearby Davao City, which propelled that city’s mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, to national fame.
Human Rights Watch said the death squad’s victims included journalist, a judge, two police officers, a tribal leader, local politicians and businessmen.
The group is calling on the government to take action to stop extrajudicial killings in Tagum City and elsewhere and properly investigate the crime.
Additional reporting by Associated PressReuse content