Philippines Accuses Media of Exaggerating Reports on Extra-Judicial Killings

Felipe Villamor
170804-Drugs-UTERTE-620.jpg Residents flock around the body of a suspected drug user killed by unidentified assailants in Manila, Aug. 2, 2017.

The Philippines on Friday branded as “exaggerated” press reports of rights abuses linked to the government’s anti-drugs war, after the United States said that its top diplomat likely would raise the topic on the sidelines of regional meetings here.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was scheduled to pay a courtesy call on President Rodrigo Duterte ahead of a series of international meetings being hosted by Manila this weekend and Monday, officials said.

The two men were expected to talk about long-standing and “strong” bilateral relations, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters in Manila on Friday. Cayetano described Duterte’s relationship with Tillerson and U.S. President Donald Trump as “very good.”

“So I expect the call to be frank, honest, but to discuss also the way forward of our relationship. And, also, to refer to some twists and turns, or some valleys in our relationship,” he told reporters.

Hours earlier, Cayetano’s office issued a statement saying it welcomed the opportunity to address concerns raised by the U.S. government “and correct perceptions they may have gleaned from exaggerated media reports.”

Tillerson is scheduled to meet with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday. The following day, he is to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, where North Korea’s recent missile tests and its nuclear ambitions are likely to dominate discussions.

Tillerson will raise all relevant issues during his visit, including concerns about human rights, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton told reporters in Washington this week.

Tillerson’s visit to Manila comes after 15 people, including a mayor, were killed in an alleged shootout with police in the southern Philippines on July 30. Rights groups have said the suspects were likely summarily executed as part of Duterte’s crackdown, which, they say, has left thousands of addicts and dealers dead at the hands of police and vigilantes.

Cayetano noted that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and Duterte did not have “mutual trust,” saying this was partly because the former U.S. president questioned the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Obama, at last year’s ASEAN summit in Laos, cancelled a scheduled meeting with Duterte after the Filipino leader cursed about him in a speech. But Duterte appeared to tone down his anti-U.S. rhetoric when Trump became president and expressed support for his Filipino counterpart’s anti-crime drive.

“Between the Trump and Duterte administrations, there is mutual trust. So tricky issues, which in the past sparked arguments, I think, can and will be discussed, including human rights,” Cayetano said.

“Because when there is mutual respect, it can be discussed in a context of friendship and cooperation,” he said.

Human rights: ‘A shared value’

The foreign ministry statement said the Philippines understood that the United States had a duty to its citizens to talk about human rights because it was accountable to them and the American press.

“The Philippines is the oldest democracy in Asia and respect for human rights is a shared value, especially with our treaty ally, the United States,” it said. “Discussions on the issue of human rights are always included in our engagements with foreign governments, in particular with Western democracies.”

Neither Cayetano nor his office’s statement mentioned that Duterte had frequently lambasted rights advocacy groups who questioned the bloodshed. Duterte had also assailed the May 2017 visit of the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extra judicial killings, and he has hit out at foreign leaders who have expressed worries over his government’s alleged human rights abuses.

Duterte, 72, won the presidency in a landslide last year on a promise to rid the Philippines of the drug menace, and to turn Manila Bay into a dumping ground for dead addicts and dealers.

He vowed to crush the illicit drug trade in three months, or he would quit, but later took that back, saying the drug problem was graver than what he had initially anticipated. A year on, more than 8,000 people have been killed, including those whose deaths were blamed on vigilantes.

The staggering death toll so far eclipses the estimated 3,200 activists who died during the 20-year regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was removed by a civilian-back military uprising in 1986.

At his public engagements Duterte has carried a list of 150 politicians, judges, policemen and military personnel whom he claimed were in the drug trade, and he has warned that he waging a war with “narco politicians.” Three of those on the list, including a mayor who was slain last Sunday, have been killed in police raids.

Duterte earlier this week said his drug war would continue, and told law enforcers that he had their backs.

“The police and the military should make sure that their enemies are dead,” he said Wednesday. “Otherwise, if the other guy can still pull the trigger, you will end up with a dead police or a dead military soldier.”

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