MANILA, Philippines, Sept 3, (AP): Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte publicly ordered the country’s top customs official to shoot and kill drug smugglers in one of his most overt threats during a deadly four-year campaign that has been the centerpiece of his presidency. Duterte has steadfastly denied authorizing extrajudicial killings but has repeatedly and openly threatened drug dealers with death. He and the national police, which has led enforcement of his anti-drug campaign, have said most of the suspects killed by police during the campaign fought back and threatened the lives of law enforcers.
Duterte gave the order to Bureau of Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero in televised remarks from a Cabinet meeting on the coronavirus pandemic Monday night. Guerrero, a retired army general and former military chief of staff, was not present when Duterte spoke, but the president said he met Guerrero and two other officials earlier Monday at the presidential palace in Manila.
“Drug is still flowing inside the country through customs,” Duterte said, adding he has earlier approved Guerrero’s request for firearms. “I approved the purchase of firearms and until now you haven’t killed even one? I told him, ‘Shape up.’” “I told him straight, ‘Drugs is still fl owing in. I’d like you to kill there … anyway, I’ll back you up and you won’t get jailed. If it’s drugs, you shoot and kill. That’s the arrangement,” Duterte said without elaborating.
More than 5,700 mostly poor drug suspects have been killed under Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown, which has alarmed human rights groups and Western governments and sparked an examination of alleged crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
Duterte has vowed to continue the deadly crackdown in his remaining two years in power. The human rights groups have said their investigations showed some suspects were killed mercilessly then police officers altered the scene and placed firearms in the victims’ hands to make it appear that they fought back. Police have said the rights groups and critics should file criminal complaints in court if they have evidence against officers.
Duterte had placed the corruption-plagued customs bureau temporarily under military control in 2018 after two large shipments of illegal drugs slipped past the agency through the port of Manila. A congressional investigation into how the large shipments of suspected methamphetamine slipped through the tightly watched port ended with recommendations of charges against some customs officials and internal reforms in the customs bureau.
Meanwhile, A US Marine convicted in the 2014 killing of a transgender Filipino woman will remain behind bars while her family and the government appeal a Philippine court order allowing his early release for good behavior, an official said Thursday. The Regional Trial Court in Olongapo city northwest of Manila on Tuesday ordered Lance Cpl Joseph Scott Pemberton released early from his six to 10-year sentence for the killing of Jennifer Laude, prompting the woman’s family to protest and appeal.
The court order has rekindled perceptions that American military personnel who run afoul of Philippine laws can get special treatment under the allies’ Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides the legal framework for the temporary visits of US forces in the country for large-scale combat exercises. Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque, who used to serve as one of the Laude family’s lawyers, said government officials cannot work on Pemberton’s release until the court has ruled on the appeal of the Laude family. Roque said the government is preparing a separate appeal of its own. “Our compatriot cannot be treated like an animal then the punishment will just be a tap on the wrist,” Roque said at a regular news conference Thursday.
On Wednesday, Roque said that Pemberton’s “light penalty” showed that “Americans continue to have the status of conquering colonials in our country.” A group of protesters rallied outside the Department of Justice in Manila on Thursday, displaying placards that showed Pemberton’s mugshot. Another placard read: “Trans lives matter.” Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in joint exercises in the country in 2014.
He and a group of other Marines were on leave after the exercises and met Laude and her friends at a bar in Olongapo, a city known for its nightlife outside Subic Bay, a former US Navy base. Laude was later found dead, her head slumped in a toilet bowl in a motel room, where witnesses said she and Pemberton had checked in. A witness told investigators that Pemberton said he choked Laude after discovering she was transgender. In December 2015, a judge convicted Pemberton of homicide, not the more serious charge of murder that prosecutors sought. The Olongapo court judge said at the time that she downgraded the charge because factors such as cruelty and treachery had not been proven.