By Nonoy Espina and Dennis Jay Santos
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may skip an upcoming U.S.-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas, his spokesman said Thursday, a day after the former national police chief who led the country’s controversial drug war confirmed that Washington had revoked his American visa.
President Donald Trump has invited his Philippine counterpart and other leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc to a summit with the United States in the Nevada city on March 14, according to media reports earlier this week.
But presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said he was unsure about Duterte’s status for the Las Vegas meeting.
Panelo said Duterte wanted to attend the summit, but was having second thoughts because he may be embarrassed if he is not allowed into the U.S.
“He said, ‘I do not even know if the U.S. will issue me a visa, and if I’m issued a visa, I do not know that once I arrive there I would be allowed [in],’” Panelo told reporters, conveying an exchange he had with President Duterte.
On Wednesday, ex-national police chief Ronald dela Rosa made national headlines when he said that the U.S. embassy in Manila notified him that his visa for entry into the United States had been invalidated, according to reports.
Duterte would let the U.S. decide whether to permit him to enter its territory, Panelo said, adding that the Philippine government would not presume to second guess the government of its long-time defense ally.
“He is leaving it up to the U.S. government, they will have to decide. ‘What, you’re inviting me or not?’” Panelo said, quoting Duterte.
While Trump’s blanket invitation was for all Southeast Asian leaders, Panelo emphasized that “these are non-normal times,” as he pointed to the case of Leila de Lima, an opposition senator and fierce critic of the Duterte administration’s drug war.
She has been detained by Philippine authorities since February 2017 over allegations that she received payoffs from drug traffickers when she served as the country’s justice secretary, charges that she denies.
President Trump recently signed the 2020 State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill, which requires the State Department to block entry into the U.S. for Filipino officials involved in de Lima’s incarceration.
Earlier, the Duterte administration had banned a handful of U.S. senators from entering the Philippines, including Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). They had co-sponsored a provision in the bill to prohibit entry into the United States for Filipino officials tied to de Lima’s detention.
Rights watchdog weighs in
Dela Rosa, a Philippine senator, as the nation’s top cop had led the Duterte administration’s war on illegal drugs that has left thousands of people dead.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to an inquiry from BenarNews seeking confirmation on the cancelation of dela Rosa’s visa.
John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said dela Rosa had been implicated in extrajudicial killings associated with the administration’s war on drugs.
“It appears that the State Department was acting under its policy and authority to deny visas to persons implicated in gross human rights violations,” Sifton said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The move to deny the former police chief a visa represented a shift in American policy toward the Philippines government and its anti-narcotics campaign, Sifton said. The United States, he said, should extend similar sanctions to other government officials implicated in the drug war.
Sifton, who saw the cancellation of dela Rosa’s visa as part of the sanctions, said Washington should “make clear that this policy extends to all members of the government who are implicated in mass killings associated with the ‘drug war.’”
Official police statistics show that nearly 6,000 suspected addicts and dealers have been killed in the Philippines since Duterte took office in mid-2016, in what authorities described as gunfights during legitimate anti-narcotics operations. Human rights organizations, however, estimate that the death toll is considerably higher.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.