Human rights activists and family members of the victims of drug-related killings have expressed outrage and disappointment at Manila's denial of any wrongdoing in President Duterte's drug war. Ana P. Santos reports.
Human rights groups claim there have been thousands of drug-related deaths since Rodrigo Duterte took office last year and unleashed a massive crackdown on illegal drugs, but the Philippine National Police (PNP) last week said that out of 6,225 drug-related deaths between July 2016 and September 2017, there was only one case of extrajudicial killing (EJK).
A "corrected" PNP statement issued later omitted mention of the single case it earlier recognized as EJK - the death of the Catanduanes-based journalist Larry Que.
Chief Superintendent Dionardo Carlos, a spokesman for the PNP, said the earlier figure had been corrected by the police unit that handles "extralegal killings" of activists, media workers and foreign nationals.
"We don't have cases considered as EJK as of now, so I stand corrected," Carlos said.
Carlos' statement was reiterated by Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano who claimed that those killed during anti-drug operations were criminals who fired back at police, leaving no option for the security forces but to defend themselves.
Randy de los Santos, a relative of the 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, told DW the PNP's statement was "laughable."
"Police is just using one narrative: the suspect fought back, was shot, and had drugs on him. It is the same excuse they made in the case of my nephew's killing," said de los Santos.
In August, the younger de los Santos was killed by police in Caloocan, a Manila suburb. CCTV footage showed that police in plain clothes roughed up the teenager, told him to run and then shot him to death. His killing mobilized a series of protests calling for an end to President Duterte's "brutal drug war."
"All I know is that my family is still grieving the death of my nephew. We don't know how we can move on from this tragedy," de los Santos said.
Feeling the pressure from the public, President Duterte said in a televised speech Thursday he was removing police from the drug war and placing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in charge of operations. He said he hoped a shift to target big drug networks would satisfy "bleeding hearts."
The fiery president, however, did not deny the PNP's drug deaths claims.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned the government's "clumsy denials" of wrongdoings would have far-reaching ramifications for the Philippines.
On September 28, a total of 39 members delivered a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council decrying Philippine killings and the climate of impunity in the Southeast Asian nation's drug war.
"It should be of no small concern to the Duterte government that those 39 states include the Philippines' close trade and aid partners like Australia, Canada and the United States. Failure by Manila to respond to these concerns will only add to international pressure on the UN's Human Rights Council to step in and do all it can to end the drug war violence, support an international investigation into the deaths, and demand accountability for all unlawful killings," Phelim Kine, deputy director of HRW Asia, told DW.
"These increasingly clumsy efforts by officials to deny the unlawful nature of the government's killing campaign speak of its growing concern that the international community's actions toward accountability and possible prosecutions of senior government officials are slowly but surely gathering steam," Kine added.
HRW's Geneva director John Fisher says the Philippines could be booted out of the UN Human Rights Council if the drug war continues. Kine said that such a move would be mostly symbolic but it would strengthen the call of UN member states to impose more biting diplomatic sanctions if their calls for accountability go unheeded.
Duterte, however, remains as defiant toward the West and international community as ever. Addressing a press conference on Thursday, the president challenged his critics to make good on their threat to remove the Philippines from the UN Human Rights Council.
"My God, do it, stupid! Do it now!" Duterte said.
The Church, a major stakeholder in the predominantly Catholic island nation, has also criticized the normalization of killings and acts of murder.
"Only callous people would say that killings are normal. This creates a culture of violence, impunity and death that would greatly affect this and future generations," said Father Flavie Chalaf, who is one of the religious leaders working with civil society organizations to provide support and counseling to the families of victims of extrajudicial killings.
While eliminating drug cartels was one of Duterte's campaign promises, his approval ratings have plummeted in the past few months.
A public survey conducted last month by the Social Weather Station showed an 18-point decline in Duterte's "satisfaction rating." There was a similar 15-point fall is in Duterte's "trust rating."
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella played down the survey results, saying that "the love [for Duterte] is still there."