Updated at 1:16 p.m. ET on 2017-11-07
The new Philippines presidential spokesman on Thursday welcomed criticism of the government’s maligned drug crackdown that has left thousands dead, insisting President Rodrigo Duterte would not tolerate murder by policemen.
Harry Roque, a human rights lawyer who previously defended journalists, emphasized that there remained a “presumption of regularity” in police discharging their official duties.
“Unless we can come up with actual evidence that extra-legal killings do exist, then we cannot overcome the presumption,” Roque told a news conference in Manila.
He said before he took the job, Duterte assured him that he would “not tolerate murder” by cops, promising in particular to prosecute those accused of killing teenager Kian Loyd delos Santos in August.
The 17-year-old student was among close to 100 killed by police in a weeklong anti-drug operation in Manila and nearby suburbs.
Officers claimed delos Santos drew a gun on them, forcing them to fire back and kill him. But a closed circuit television camera in the neighborhood showed the boy being taken away by two plain clothes officers. Minutes later he was found dead.
Two other teens were killed days later in what appeared to be suspicious circumstances, with one found with his head covered in a packing tape.
The three killings galvanized political opposition to Duterte’s drug war, eventually forcing him to order police to stand down.
Church, rights groups protest
Rights groups have joined the politically influential Roman Catholic Church in denouncing the killings. An influential Christian evangelical group, the Jesus is Lord (JIL) movement, last week also openly broke with the president and urged accountability in the face of the killings.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said it would martial hundreds of thousands of faithful to join a prayer vigil over the weekend to “heal the nation” and protest the killings.
A peaceful gathering, the program is largely expected to reflect the general mood across the country because of the church’s stature in the Philippines, Asia’s bastion of Catholicism.
Previously, the church marshaled its supporters to push for the removal of two former presidents – the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001. Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, and Estrada was later pardoned.
While Roque said Duterte had assured him he would not sanction murders by police, it was clear that “there will be collateral damage.”
“The goal of the government is to minimize the collateral damage. The goal of the government is to uphold the right to life, which is to protect and promote the right to life,” Roque said.
“As far as this obligation is concerned, there is a continuing obligation of the state to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of these killings,” he said.
He said that Duterte’s frequent tirades against the European Union, the United Nations and other countries questioning his crackdown were in line with the “principle of non-interference.”
“Because the drug war is a sovereign undertaking,” Roque said.
“So it’s only understandable that the president expressed displeasure where he feels that this tenet of non-interference is being violated by other countries,” he said.
Prior to becoming a congressman last year, Roque founded the Manila-based Center for International Law that advocated for human rights.
The group had represented families of 32 journalists who were among 58 killed by a Muslim political clan in the south in 2009, the single biggest group of media workers slain at one time.
The group also represented clients whose family members were killed in the drug war.
An earlier version incorrectly gave the date for the photo of Harry Roque as Nov. 2, 2017.