MANILA, Philippines — In an extraordinary hearing in the Philippine Senate, a witness claimed President Rodrigo Duterte paid him to carry out executions that involved, among other things, feeding a body to a crocodile, chopping up corpses and murder by packing tape.
The witness, Edgar Matobato, spoke to Filipino lawmakers at Senate hearings investigating a recent wave of extra-judicial killings that has claimed more than 3,000 lives as part of the president's anti-drug campaign.
Matobato said he spent years working as part of the so-called "Davao Death Squad," a group of killers associated with the president's time as a city mayor.
Matobato's claims, which have not been independently confirmed, linked President Duterte and his son, Paolo Duterte, to a list of crimes worthy of a gangster film.
He said he and fellow assassins referred to then-mayor Duterte using the code name "Charlie Mike," and he ordered them to kill dozens of people ranging from drug pushers, to the dance-instructor boyfriend of Duterte's sister, to a millionaire hotelier.
"People in Davao City were like chickens — they were being killed without any reason," said Matobato.
The hearing's chair, Sen. Leila de Lima, is a longtime critic of Duterte's human rights record. She said she saw the testimony as a step toward truth and justice for victims of the president's alleged purges, past and present. "People deserve to know," she said.
A Duterte ally present at the hearing, Senator Alan Cayetano, dismissed Matobato's sworn testimony as "lies," questioning his credibility and casting the whole process as a politically motivated plot against the president. A spokesman for the president denied the allegation.
The dramatic scene at the Senate on Thursday showed a country divided at home and struggling to keep its balance on the global stage.
Duterte swept to power this spring promising to crack down on crime, just as he did as the longtime mayor of Davao, where he earned a reputation for strongman tactics and was christened "the death squad mayor" for allegedly overseeing extra-judicial killings.
During this year's campaign Duterte did not shy away from his "death squad" moniker, promising he would kill 100,000 criminals in six months.
"When I become president, I'll order the police and the military to find these people and kill them. The funeral parlors will be packed. … I'll supply the dead bodies," he said.
Since he took office in July, some 3,000 people have been murdered. Duterte initially seemed to urge the killers on, but has more recently tried to distance himself from extra-judicial killings and summary executions.
The deaths have been condemned by the United Nations and questioned by President Barack Obama. Duterte has shrugged off all criticism.
The president's undiplomatic comments and erratic approach to foreign policy has the United States worried.
The Philippines, a onetime U.S. colony, is a close ally of the United States.
But Duterte's rise puts that in question. After his profanity-laced comments about Obama at a recent summit, Duterte called for the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from the island of Mindanao. He also announced he will buy weapons from the Chinese.