Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has defended a former economic adviser after a fired police official surfaced with documents alleging that the ex-aide was involved in the drug trade.
The astounding claims by former Police Senior Superintendent Eduardo Acierto raised questions this week from critics of the Duterte administration’s anti-narcotics campaign, which has left thousands of people dead since he took power in 2016, while lawmakers demanded a probe.
“Do not believe Acierto. I want to ask the military and the police why this son of a bitch is still alive,” Duterte said.
Acierto’s allegations surfaced on Sunday when he met with a select group of journalists and presented what he said was a report he had submitted to his superiors two years ago.
Acierto, a former deputy chief of the police’s drug enforcement unit, told reporters that two Chinese nationals, including Michael Yang – who served as the president’s economic adviser from January to December last year – were drug operators with close ties with Duterte.
But Duterte, during a speech in southern Koronadal city, defended Yang as a legitimate businessman who lives in Davao city, the president’s hometown in the Philippine south.
In his meetings with Yang, the adviser had always been in the company of senior Chinese diplomats, according to Duterte.
“Would they allow Yang to be there if he was into drugs?” the president said.
He then turned the tables on Acierto. Duterte called him a corrupt official who had been dismissed from service over charges that he had procured automatic rifles that landed in the hands of communist rebels.
The president labelled Acierto an “idiot,” saying he should have done further investigations and charged Yang and the other Chinese national of drug trafficking, if his report was to be believed.
“Why would I give importance to his report?” Duterte said.
Accuser claims life in danger
Acierto, who was fired last year and has been in hiding for several months, said he gave an intelligence report to his superiors as early as December 2017 about Yang’s alleged involvement. He claimed the report was largely ignored by then-national police chief Ronald dela Rosa, a known Duterte aide.
“If the president was really mad about illegal drugs, why did he not order them arrested?” he told reporters, as he showed undated photographs of the two Chinese nationals mingling with Duterte.
Because of his revelations, he said, an informant had told him that the drug syndicate had put a price on his head. This, Acierto said, forced him to divulge what he knew publicly.
“What I just did was to investigate key people behind the illegal drug trade. Now, it’s me whose life is in danger,” Acierto said.
“I only wanted to inform them that two Chinese nationals who were always with the president have involvement in the drug trade. I thought then that the president probably did not know that,” Acierto, a 27-year police veteran, said, “If the president was really mad at drugs, why were they always with the president?”
In its Nov. 5, 2018 report, the Philippine-based news portal Rappler published copies of Yang’s contracts as an “economic adviser to the president,” in which the Chinese citizen acknowledged that he was “aware of the sensitivity of the information he may have access to.”
The first contract identified Yang by his Chinese name Yang Hong Ming and stated that he was being “contracted as Economic Adviser to the President for the period January 1, 2018 to June 30, 2018.” The second contract gave Yang the same designation from July 1, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2018.
The contracts stipulated that Yang would “provide advisory or consultative services to the President in such fields and under such conditions as the President may determine.”
Officials have not denied the authenticity of the documents. Duterte had earlier denied that Yang was hired as his economic adviser, but after the Rappler documents surfaced, the presidential palace confirmed the relationship.
Acierto said he submitted a report to Duterte’s office in December 2017 and to the police hierarchy five months later.
There were no actions made on his report, and his employment was placed on a “floating status,” he said.
“It crossed my mind that maybe the president did not know that they were alleged drug lords,” he emphasized, adding that even before Duterte became president Yang and another Chinese national were always part of Duterte’s travelling party.
Acierto also showed undated photographs of the two Chinese men with Bong Go, Duterte’s chief aide.
Acierto said the report was also submitted to Aaron Aquino, chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, who had confirmed receiving it and endorsing it to the president’s office. But on Wednesday, Aquino told reporters that Yang did not appear in the agency’s list of wanted drug personalities.
Calls for a public investigation
Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, an opposition senatorial candidate in the Philippine legislative elections in mid-May, called for a “full-blown investigation” into the allegation.
“If there’s really no truth to what he’s saying, why does the president implicitly want to silence him?” Diokno said, referring to Acierto.
Sen. Leila de Lima, who has been in jail during the past two years on what she says are trumped-up drug-related charges, urged Acierto to make public the intelligence report he prepared.
“The intel report of Acierto, if publicized and verified, will raise questions as to Duterte’s real involvement in the drug trade in the country,” said de Lima, the country’s former rights commissioner,
Another senator, Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, said Acierto’s revelation deserved a thorough investigation.
“They should pursue the investigation because the one being involved occupies the highest position in the government,” Lacson told reporters, referring to Duterte.
This would be “just to clear the air if Acierto’s accusations have basis. I am not saying that his accusations are credible. I have seen the report even before the Senate hearing,” he said.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo denied that officials had ignored Acierto’s report, claiming they were waiting for its “validation.”
“There is an allegation and let the allegation be processed, investigated and then if there is a validation, then the Palace will make a move,” Panelo said, adding the president would personally “kill” Yang if it turned out he was into drug trafficking.
Since Duterte took power in 2016, about 5,000 suspected drug dealers and addicts have been killed in what police described as shootouts during law-enforcement operations. Right groups say thousands more have lost their lives, including deaths blamed by authorities on vigilantes.
Joseph Jubelag and Mark Navales in Koronadal city, South Cotabato province, contributed to this report.