• Reuters


The Philippines’ national police chief said Tuesday that about 1,900 people had been killed during a crackdown on illegal drugs, which began seven weeks ago when President Rodrigo Duterte took power, but about 40 were not drug-related.

The number provided by Director-General Ronaldo dela Rosa at a Senate hearing was higher than the 1,800 deaths he gave at the hearing on Monday. He gave no explanation for the higher number but said the figures were updated.

It means that on average, 35 people have been killed each day since Duterte came to power.

Dela Rosa said about 750 of the dead were killed in police operations against drug peddlers. The other deaths were being investigated, he said.

“Not all deaths under investigation are drug-related,” dela Rosa said, adding that 40 killings were known to be due to enmity or robbery.

Nearly 700,000 drug users and drug peddlers have turned themselves in to escape the crackdown, dela Rosa said. He said there was a decrease in overall crime, although murders and homicides had increased.

Duterte, nicknamed “the Punisher,” was voted to power promising to wipe out drugs and warning traffickers they risked death if they did not mend their ways.

The inquiry is being conducted by a staunch critic of the president, Senator Leila de Lima, who has summoned top police and anti-narcotics officials to explain the “unprecedented” rise in the body count.

Duterte responded by warning legislators not to interfere with his campaign, saying they could be killed if they blocked efforts aimed at improving the country.

The United States, a close ally of the Philippines, said it was “deeply concerned” by the reports, and U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Duterte’s government to ensure that law-enforcement authorities abided by human rights norms.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the United States and European Union members “should make it clear to Duterte that inciting such violence is unacceptable and will reap potentially severe diplomatic and economic costs.”

“Otherwise, it’s hard to envision when these killings will end,” it said.

The drug trafficking crackdown and some strongly worded criticisms Duterte has made of the United States since coming to power present a dilemma for Washington, which has been seeking to forge unity among allies and partners in Asia in the face of an increasingly assertive China, especially in the strategic South China Sea.

Toner made the dilemma clear in responses to questions at a regular State Department briefing in Washington, in which he referred to Duterte as “a plain-speaking politician.”

“We continue to make clear to the Philippines government … our concern about human rights, extrajudicial killings, but we are also committed to our bilateral relationship and strengthening that bilateral relationship,” he said.

Toner said there was no question of the United States turning a blind eye to rights abuses and that the relationship with Manila, while good, was “frank and candid.”

As recently as Sunday, the number of suspected drug traffickers killed in Duterte’s war on drugs had been put at about 900 by Philippine officials. But this number included people who died since Duterte won the May 9 presidential election.

Duterte said in a strongly worded late-night news conference on Sunday the Philippines might leave the United Nations and invite China and others to form a new global forum, accusing it of failing to fulfill its mandate.

His foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay Jr., said Monday the Philippines would remain a U.N. member and described the president’s comments as expressions of “profound disappointment and frustration.”

“We are committed to the U.N. despite our numerous frustrations and disappointments with the international agency,” Yasay told a news conference. U.S. officials declined comment on Duterte’s U.N. remarks.

Last week, two U.N. human rights experts urged Manila to stop the extra-judicial executions and killings.

Yasay said Duterte has promised to uphold human rights in the fight against drugs and has ordered the police to investigate and prosecute offenders. He criticized the U.N. rapporteurs for “jumping to an arbitrary conclusion that we have violated human rights of people.”

“It is highly irresponsible on their part to solely rely on such allegations based on information from unnamed sources without proper substantiation,” he said of the United Nations.

Sen. Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of the president, started a two-day congressional inquiry into the killings Monday, questioning top police and anti-narcotics officials to explain the “unprecedented” rise in killings.

“I am disturbed that we have killings left and right as breakfast every morning,” she said.

“My concern does not only revolve around the growing tally of killings reported by the police. What is particularly worrisome is that the campaign against drugs seems to be an excuse for some law enforcers and other elements like vigilantes to commit murder with impunity,” De Lima said.

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