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Emaciated by Cancer and Mistaken as a Drug Addict, Filipino Dies in Detention

Emaciated by Cancer and Mistaken as a Drug Addict, Filipino Dies in Detention

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The wake of Allan Rafael in Caloocan city, Philippines, this month.CreditJes Aznar for The New York Times

By Felipe Villamor

MANILA — In an impoverished area near Manila, the Philippine capital, the body of Allan Rafael lay in a white coffin as distraught relatives reminisced about the cancer-stricken man who died in detention after being arrested in President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war.

On top of the coffin were photographs of Mr. Rafael, a former overseas Filipino worker, taken when he was still employed as a cook in the Middle East, and one donated by activists, with the words: “Justice for Allan, Stop the Killings.”

When the police arrested him on Aug. 2, Mr. Rafael, 35, who had lymphoma, tried to explain why he looked emaciated. It wasn’t because of narcotics. He was just really sick, having undergone chemotherapy since his return from Saudi Arabia last year for treatment.

But his reasoning fell on deaf ears, and he was detained, beaten and tortured by the police to obtain a confession, according to his younger brother, Aarun Rafael, who had visited him in jail.

Four days after the arrest, Allan Rafael was declared dead. On top of that, some of his personal effects were missing, including his wallet, sports watch and cellphone, his brother said.

Mr. Duterte’s drug war has killed thousands of people, and most deaths go largely unnoticed. But the killing of Mr. Rafael has been seized on by members of the large community of overseas Filipino workers, who have been intensely loyal to Mr. Duterte.

The group Migrante International, which represents overseas Filipino workers, has come to the aid of Mr. Rafael’s beleaguered family and accused the president of propagating a “culture of impunity” that empowers rogue police officers to commit violence.

“Instead of punishing erring policemen, the Duterte regime just simply relocates these murderous brutes to other places, and worse, promotes some of them,” Arman Hernando, the chairman of Migrante International, said at Mr. Rafael’s wake.

At the wake last week in Dagat-Dagatan, a sprawling slum area of Manila, relatives huddled under a tent to escape a torrential downpour, and neighbors stopped by to offer their sympathy.

Allan Rafael’s girlfriend of eight years, who identified herself only as Ms. Flordeliz because she wanted to limit her media exposure, said the couple had been planning to marry soon. Allan, she said, was the optimist of the two.

“He was making himself strong, healing,” Ms. Flordeliz said in between sobs. “After his chemo treatment, he had already been planning to get well and finally be able to return to work.”

“We just want the truth,” Ms. Flordeliz said. “He was trying to beat cancer, only to die in jail.”

The couple met in the central Philippine province of Leyte, where Mr. Rafael was finishing a degree in hotel and restaurant management, which was his ticket to a job abroad, and potentially a better life for his family.

Life in the province had been hard, especially after Typhoon Haiyan battered the region in 2013, killing at least 6,300 people and ravaging much of Leyte. The Rafael family survived the ordeal, and Allan vowed after to work to lift his family from poverty.

Mr. Rafael’s cousin, Edmalyn Badeo Germanes, 44, who often took care of him and his siblings as children while their parents tended the farm in Leyte, described the slain man as reserved but determined, someone who “had many dreams for his family.”

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A protest against extrajudicial killings and to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student mistakenly killed in the drug war last year.CreditJes Aznar for The New York Times

“We knew about his disease, and we were all praying for him. When I heard he died, I thought initially that the cancer had finally won, only to find out he died in the hands of the police,” she said. “We never thought it could happen to any one of us.”

Like many Filipino families, Ms. Germanes said, they voted for Mr. Duterte in 2016, electrified by his promises to break up big monopolies and eradicate drugs that have been the scourge of many communities.

“I had initially chosen another candidate but was persuaded by the family that the Philippines needed a man, a strong president,” she said. “Now, I’m not so sure.”

An estimated 10 million Filipinos work as laborers, seamen and maids abroad, and politicians have traditionally courted their support, particularly Mr. Duterte, who makes a point of meeting with them during his overseas trips.

According to the police, more than 4,500 drug users and dealers have been killed since Mr. Duterte took office in June 2016, but rights groups put the number of deaths at more than 12,000. To put that figure into context, 3,200 activists were slain under the regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose two-decade rule was known for its brutality.

Last year, Mr. Duterte temporarily suspended all police antidrug operations after three teenagers were mistakenly killed, spurring huge protests led by the influential Catholic Church. But Mr. Duterte resumed the police operations in December, saying they would continue until his six-year term ends.

The police who arrested Mr. Rafael did not respond to an interview request, but an earlier statement by the Manila Police District said that it had begun a “thorough investigation” of the case.

Jacqueline de Guia, a spokeswoman for the independent Commission on Human Rights, called for an independent investigation into Mr. Rafael’s death and punishment for any officer found to have acted illegally.

“It is alarming that, even after statements of claimed internal cleansing within the Philippine National Police, allegations of abuse of authority by our police officers continue,” she said.

Mr. Hernando, of Migrante International, said the group feared a whitewash investigation of Mr. Rafael’s death, and demanded that another autopsy be carried out by an independent body.

“Under the guise of the regime’s drug war, cops have unleashed themselves as bloody predators killing, maiming any ordinary citizen who is perceived to be an enemy of Duterte’s misguided war,” he said.

As an example, he said that Senior Supt. Chito Bersaluna, once the police chief of suburban Caloocan City, north of Manila, has been transferred to another area after his men were blamed for the death last year of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student mistakenly killed in the drug war.

Three officers have been charged in his death, although Mr. Duterte had repeatedly said that he would pardon all officers convicted of killing in the name of his drug war.

Two days after Mr. Rafael’s death, the president praised the national police for “cleansing the organization of scalawags” and for instituting what he said were reforms among its ranks. He also boasted that the national police force had apprehended about 160,000 “illegal drug personalities” since he became president, and urged officers to be aggressive with drug suspects.

“The rule is, when your life is in danger and you feel that really you will die and leave a family fatherless, do not hesitate to kill,” he said. “I will never allow you to go to jail. I will provide the lawyer for you.”

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