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Family challenges death in drug war – ‘New findings’

An empty shell of a pistol lies near the body of a woman, later identified by her husband as that of Nora Acielo, after she was shot by still unidentified men while about to bring her two children to school at a poor neighborhood in Manila, Philippines on Dec 8. Police said the killing of Acielo was the 13th recorded drug-related case in the past 24 hours in President Rodrigo Duterte’s unrelenting war on drugs. (Inset): People look at the body of Nora Acielo. (AP)

MANILA, Dec 8, (RTRS): It’s a Friday morning in late October, and Florjohn Cruz’s body lies on a metal table at a funeral parlor in the Philippine capital of Manila. A forensics team is about to perform an autopsy on him — his second. His widow, Rita, glances at the tidy stitches running up his torso from the previous examination. Then she poses for the picture that will serve as proof of Florjohn’s identity in the report being compiled on his death by the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Rita, who had been separated from her husband for more than a year, starts crying. Then she leaves the room. Rita and her grief-stricken family are desperate for answers. They don’t believe the police account of the killing of her husband.

The police have conducted an autopsy, but the family has asked CHR to perform a second one. Florjohn Cruz, 34, was shot dead in his mother’s house in northern Manila on the evening of Oct 19, joining the more than 2,000 people police say they have killed so far in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Police say plainclothes officers killed Cruz in self-defense after he fired at them during a drugbuying sting operation. The family says police burst into their home and shot Cruz, as he protested his innocence. In a rare move, the family has pushed for a second autopsy, which Reuters attended, in a bid to challenge the police version of events. With Duterte encouraging police to kill drug addicts, and officers answering his call with a near-perfect kill rate, many bereaved relatives say they are fearful of questioning law enforcement authorities.

But the Cruz family crave information. There are things that don’t add up. If Cruz fired first from close range, how is it possible that no policemen were injured? And how could Cruz have fired at police if he didn’t own a gun? “We had no information whatsoever,” said Rita. “All we saw was the body in the body bag.” According to the police report, Cruz and two accomplices were selling drugs outside the house on Oct 19 at about 9:45 pm when they realized their would-be customers were undercover police. Cruz ran inside the house, pulled a gun and shot at the officers, missing them. The police returned fire “to prevent and repel Cruz’ unlawful aggression,” said the report. Cruz was killed. The family tells a different story. They believe he was executed.

Policarpia Cruz, 74, said she was at home with her son, who was fixing her radio, when between four and six men in civilian clothes barged in with guns drawn and ordered her outside. She said she couldn’t see what happened next, but she heard her son pleading, “Please stop, there’s nothing here,” as the men slapped him around. Then she heard someone shout, “Gun!” Shots rang out. The police didn’t allow family members back into the house to see what had happened. The family next saw Cruz’s bullet-riddled body at Eusebio Funeral Services, a privately run funeral home that also serves as a police morgue. Photos taken there by the family show that Cruz was shot beneath the chin, through the heart and in the abdomen.

“He’s a father. He’s just a normal human being who used to do drugs,” said Cruz’s niece, Sophia, 26. “It’s like they just killed a dog.” The CHR autopsy takes two hours. That’s twice as long as the police autopsy, according to Eusebio’s staff. At the end, Jimenez says “thank you” to Cruz’s corpse, and his team observes a moment of silence. Then he explains his findings to the family. The bottom line: None of the findings of the second autopsy suggest that Cruz was executed, he says. There are no obvious clues pointing to an execution, such as a shot to the forehead or the back of the head. And only limited information can be gleaned from an autopsy on a body like Cruz’s that has already been embalmed, Jimenez told Reuters. Organs change consistency, he said, and stitching destroys the edges of wounds and changes their size and shape. Nevertheless, some evidence has clearly been overlooked. And Rita seems mollified by the new information from the second autopsy. The police hadn’t opened her husband’s skull and hadn’t found the bullet fragment lodged in his brain. She says she and her family will need to decide whether to continue to press for answers. “There are new findings,” she says. “We may file a police case.”

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