By Basilio Sepe and Nonoy Espina
President Rodrigo Duterte has blamed warring criminal syndicates for widespread drug-related killings in the Philippines, in what critics said Tuesday was a fresh attempt to escape culpability for the bloodshed during his administration’s ongoing crackdown on narcotics.
Duterte’s remarks late Monday marked the first time that he had publicly attempted to distance himself from the more than 6,500 killings of suspected addicts and pushers since launching the war against the illegal drug trade after he came to power in mid-2016.
The Philippine leader, 75, faces two complaints for mass murder before The Hague-based International Criminal Court over the killings in his four-year-old drug war.
“[T]hese extrajudicial killings they have been harping about for many years, truthfully, I also had my doubts, and there was a time when I conducted a discreet hearing [on why they were occurring,]” Duterte said, without specifying when this purported investigation took place, during his weekly briefing to the nation.
“What was reported to me is that sometimes there is a rivalry of the turf,” he said, referring to drug lords fighting over who controls which territory.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch dismissed the Philippine president’s assertion that drug-gang members were killing each other, saying his comments were unsupported and that he was trying to absolve himself of responsibility for thousands of killings carried out in the name of his government’s drug war.
Duterte’s statements saying his administration wasn’t involved in the drug-war killings were “specious, self-serving and utterly without basis,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The hearing he claimed to conduct to arrive at this far-fetched conclusion was never disclosed to the public, raising questions about whether it happened at all,” Robertson said.
“Once again, Duterte is manufacturing a story, or ‘fake news’ to use the moniker he likes to use, to divert attention from killers in the ranks of the police to so-called drug syndicates. No one should be fooled by the president’s latest ruse,” he added.
During his latest briefing, Duterte didn’t mention his publicized orders last month to his customs chief to shoot dead anyone caught smuggling narcotics, but he did refer to his past comments in which he boasted about having killed people and ordering the police to kill.
“I have not killed anyone. And I never, never … you can ask any policeman here in the Philippines … did I ask anyone ‘Kill this Mr. Santos, Edmundo Santos, or kill Juan dela Cruz. I never do that and if I … I do not … I just keep it in my mind because I know that whether I like it or not there is a war going on,” Duterte said.
“I cannot stop [the] killing, the killing of criminals and the killing of my soldiers and policemen.”
Duterte was elected president on a campaign pledge to eradicate drugs in the Philippines. At one of his campaign rallies, he said he would dump slain drug dealers and addicts into Manila Bay “and fatten all the fish there.”
In 2018, about a month after the International Criminal Court said it would begin a preliminary examination of one of the complaints against Duterte, the president pulled the Philippines out of the court, saying critics were using human rights issues to undermine the government.
Duterte repeated that allegation last month in his first-ever address at the United Nations General Assembly. He also accused human rights advocate of having “weaponized” human rights and of “preying on the most vulnerable humans.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Leila de Lima, an opposition leader jailed on what she says are trumped up drug-related charges, accused Duterte of attempting to dodge responsibility for the killings.
“I find it funny, tragically funny, that Mr. Duterte is denying that he had people killed. It is and has been the central policy of his regime,” de Lima said.
She said the president had repeatedly exhorted the police to kill in the name of his drug war.
“Never has there been any such explicit directive from Duterte to stop the killings. Now he is scrambling to avoid responsibility for the genocide committed under his watch,” de Lima said.
“Justice beckons and he will be called to account for his actions.”
In June 2020, a year-long investigation by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, found “near-total impunity” for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings that took place during the Duterte administration’s crackdown on illegal drugs.
Last month, Bachelet said she remained “concerned by continued reports of drug-related killings, by both police and vigilantes, including during COVID-related restrictions on movement” in the Philippines.