By Luis Liwanag and Jeoffrey Maitem
Rights advocates and Philippine opposition figures on Friday criticized President Rodrigo Duterte for releasing names on a drug-watch list, including those of politicians, and described the leader’s move as a “veritable hitlist” ahead of mid-term elections in May.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the president’s list was clearly meant to weaken the chances of candidates. The Philippines is to elect half of the 24-member Senate, more than 250 congressmen and thousands of governors, mayors and other local officials in polls scheduled for May 13.
Carlos Conde, HRW’s Philippine researcher, accused Duterte of trying to pull off an “outrageous attempt” to influence the mid-term polls.
“More critically, it’s a veritable hit list in his drug war as past politicians accused of drug involvement all too often end up being shot dead by the police,” Conde said in a statement.
“Duterte’s list deprives those named of due process and the presumption of innocence. If the government really has evidence against them, they should be arrested, charged and tried, not be the target of administrative cases by an agency – the interior department – that is under the office of the president,” he added.
Drug enforcement officials said Duterte had more than 80 names on his list, but the president only named around half of them during a speech in southern Davao City on Thursday night.
He ordered anti-money laundering officials to investigate the names as well as file administrative cases against those whom he named.
“Since my assumption in 2016, I have committed to eradicate the drug problem. I have done that. My decision to unmask these drug personalities was anchored on my trust in the government agencies who have vetted and validated the narco-list,” Duterte said in his speech, according to the Manila Times.
The names of 35 mayors, seven vice mayors, one provincial board member and three congressmen appeared on the list, the Philippine Star reported.
Several Filipino mayors whom Duterte had named as drug suspects on a list that he had publicized earlier in his presidency ended up being shot and killed.
In a report it published in January, Human Rights Watch said that the Duterte government’s war on illegal drugs had expanded to areas outside Manila in 2018, including the nearby suburbs of Bulacan, Laguna, Cavite, and the cities of Cebu and General Santos in the central and southern Philippines.
Conde accused Duterte of “weaponizing” the drug war to target opposition politicians. The move “undermines the rule of law,” Conde said.
Gary Alejano, a member of the House of Representatives who is running for the Senate in May, said Duterte was abusing his power.
“If the administration has solid evidence, then file appropriate charges and let them roll in the courts. The problem is, time and again, the list have been proven inaccurate, and even the president himself admitted to this,” Alejano told reporters.
He said the “public shaming” was meant to “intimidate and control the local politicians” in the coming polls.
“This is also a mere show of bravado to make the people believe that the war on drugs is working. It is not,” said Alejano, a former Marine captain and a close ally of outgoing Sen. Antonio Trillanes, one of the staunchest critics of Duterte’s drug war.
Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, who is also seeking a seat in the Senate, cast doubt on the list, stressing that the first list that Duterte had released contained some erroneous names.
“There are still many drug lords on the loose, while ordinary Filipinos are wrongly accused, placed under suspicion or killed,” Diokno said. “This is not just.”
Diokno was apparently referring to the first list of 150 names that Duterte released shortly after becoming president in 2016. That list included the names of judges, mayors, police and military officers.
But one of the justices that was named there, turned out to be long dead, a mistake that the president did not directly address although he had acknowledged then that errors could have been made.
Duterte, however, has never said where he got the information on which his lists were compiled.
Recently, in a series of speeches, the president also claimed that drug addicts in the Philippines now numbered between seven million and eight million – a staggering figure that even the country’s police chief said he could not verify.
Since Duterte became president in 2016, more than 5,000 suspected addicts and dealers have been killed in police operations. But the figure could be higher, with HRW saying that the figure could be more than 20,000.