Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appeared to endorse police killing drug suspects in the central city of Bacolod, in what a government official on Friday said was the president’s way of exaggerating to make a point.
During a business conference late Thursday, Duterte launched into a tirade against illegal drugs and at one point mentioned Lt. Col. Jovie Espenido, whom he recently appointed as deputy city director for operation in Bacolod.
“Bacolod is badly hit now and I placed Espenido there. The policeman they fear,” Duterte said, according to an official transcript of his speech.
“I said, ‘go there and you are free to kill everybody,’ … go start killing them,” Duterte said, adding he was willing to go to jail with the police colonel for combatting illegal drugs.
Thursday’s order to Espenido appeared to be the first time Duterte directly told a police officer to commit a crime. In September, during a public event, the 74-year-old president said he ordered the botched assassination attempt last year of a local politician he claimed was involved in drugs.
Duterte’s spokesmen later claimed he misspoke.
Espenido was the police chief in the town of Albuera in central Leyte province in 2016 when officers killed Rolando Espinosa Sr., who was in jail for his alleged connections to drug dealing.
The following year, Espenido was transferred to southern Ozamiz City where he led an anti-drug raid that led to the killing of Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog and more than a dozen of his body guards.
Reacting to Duterte’s order, Amnesty International (AI) on Friday said Espenido should not have been appointed to the higher rank pending the results of an internal investigation over previous incidents.
“Others like him have also been transferred and promoted, instead of being held accountable for the thousands of killings in the government’s war on drugs,” said Butch Olano of AI’s Philippine section. “It appears that under this administration, not only illegal drugs but also errant cops are being recycled, and more worryingly, rewarded.”
He said the president’s “blatant and continued incitement to kill” led to a human rights crisis in the Philippines.
Official police statistics since Duterte became chief executive three years ago show almost 7,000 suspected addicts and dealers have been killed in what authorities had described as gunfights during legitimate anti-narcotics operations. Human rights organizations have estimated thousands more were killed.
Duterte temporarily froze the drug war after a court convicted three police officers in the killing of a teen whom they initially accused of pulling out a pistol while resisting arrest.
The president later vowed to continue his deadly anti-drug campaign until he steps down in 2022.
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AI said that in the wake of the controversy, the government must initiate investigations into police brutality and abuses.
“This encouragement of bloodshed must end once and for all, and efforts toward this must begin at the highest levels of government, notably the president himself,” Olano said.
“We reiterate that an important first step to ending this cycle of violence and impunity is to direct the police to stop the killings and bring to justice those found to be involved in previous abusive operations,” he said.
Meanwhile on Friday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said Duterte was only “exaggerating to emphasize a point” the night before.
“But you can’t do that literally, you cannot kill everybody you want dead,” he said on a Manila radio station. “You can use reasonable force if they resist and fight and if you feel you are in danger.”