‘Drug war kills poor only’ – Chief won’t stop cops seeking church ‘help’

Nanette Castillo grieves next to the dead body of her son Aldrin, an alleged drug user killed by unidentified assailants, in Manila on Oct 3. Philippines police officers who want to speak out about ‘extrajudicial killings and summary executions’ in President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war have been offered sanctuary and legal help by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, which counts 80 percent of Filipinos as followers, has been one of the leading critics of the drug war and its offer to police on Monday was another step in its efforts to stop the killings. (AFP)

MANILA, Oct 3, (RTRS): The Philippines’ top police commander on Tuesday said he would not prevent officers involved in the country’s bloody war on drugs from seeking church protection and testifying to their alleged abuses, providing they told the truth.

Police chief Ronald dela Rosa was reacting to a statement from a senior Catholic prelate expressing “willingness to grant accommodation, shelter, and protection” to police involved in unlawful killings during the 15-month-old crackdown. More than 3,800 people have been killed during President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless campaign, in what police say are anti-drugs operations during which suspects had violently resisted arrest. Human rights group believe that figure, provided by the Philippine National Police (PNP), misrepresents the scale of the bloodshed, pointing to large numbers of killings by shadowy gunmen.

The PNP denies allegations that assassins are operating in league with some of its officers to kill drug users. “The pill may be bitter but we can swallow the bitter pill if that pill is true,” dela Rosa told reporters, adding that he had no information that any PNP members had approached the church and wanted to speak out. “Even if we are at the receiving end, we can take it as long as it is the truth, not just fabricated. The truth is important.” The PNP and Duterte have been on the defensive in recent weeks as scrutiny intensifies over the conduct of mostly plain-clothes officers during what the PNP calls “buy bust” sting operations. Duterte has several times stated that he has never told police to kill, unless in self defence. His critics, however, accuse him of inciting murder in his frequent, truculent speeches. The killings by police of two teenagers during August is the subject of an ongoing Senate inquiry. Opinion polls released in recent days, which were compiled in June, show doubt among Filipinos about police accounts.

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Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), on Monday said some police sought church help and were struggling to come to terms with their actions. He did not identify them, or say how many sought protection. He said the church would gauge their sincerity and honesty and establish their motives for coming forward. Priests would help “within the bounds of church and civil laws”, but would not influence them to testify. “Their consciences are troubling them,” Villegas said. “They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participating in extrajudicial killings and summary executions.” Some Senators applauded the bishops’ move and urged police to testify.

“I welcome the willingness of these involved policemen to finally speak about their actual involvement in the extrajudicial killings,” Grace Poe said in a statement. “I laud the church in opening its arms wide to provide sanctuary for them.” Priests are among the most influential dissenters to take on Duterte, having initially been silent when the drugs killings started. Some churches have given sanctuary to drug users and witnesses of killings, while some priests have denounced the bloodshed during sermons and called for bells to be rang nightly in protest.

Meanwhile, most Filipinos believe only the poor are killed in their country’s war on drugs, and want President Duterte to reveal the identity of alleged narcotics kingpins and charge them in court, a survey released on Monday showed. The survey of 1,200 Filipinos by Social Weather Stations (SWS) conducted late in June also showed public opinion was split over the validity of police accounts of operations against illegal drugs that resulted in deaths. More than 3,800 people have been killed during Duterte’s 15-month-old crackdown, all during police operations.

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Human rights group say the death toll is much higher and the official figures overlook murders attributed to shadowy vigilantes. Some activists say unknown gunmen have collaborated with police to kill drug dealers and users. Police and the government vehemently reject those allegations and accuse critics of exaggerating the death toll for political gain.

The high death toll in Duterte’s fight against crime and drugs, a key election plank, has stoked international alarm, although domestic polls have shown Filipinos are largely supportive of the tough measures.

The crackdown has come under heavy scrutiny of late, prompted largely by the police killing of a 17-yearold student on Aug 16. Two witnesses on Monday told a senate inquiry they saw police officers kill another teenager arrested earlier in the same area for robbery. In both teen killings, however, police said the victims had violently resisted arrest. A third teenager arrested with the second victim was found dead with 30 stab wounds in a province about a three-hour drive away from the capital. Duterte has several times brandished what he called a file on 6,000 alleged druglords at the centre of the country’s trade. In the SWS survey, 74 percent of respondents said they wanted him to make that list public. The survey also showed 60 percent agreed with the statement that only poor drug pushers were killed.

Duterte, who enjoys huge support among working class Filipinos, has been angered by critics who characterised his campaign as a war against the poor. The survey also showed nearly half of respondents were undecided whether police were telling the truth when saying that drugs war deaths happened only when suspects refused to go quietly. Twenty-eight percent said the police were lying but a quarter believed they were being honest. The Philippines, extremely sensitive about foreign criticism of its drugs war, last week accused the West of bias, hypocrisy and interference after 39 nations, most of them European, expressed concern about the drugrelated killings.

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