MANILA, Philippines – Rights activists said Friday that the Philippine president acknowledged in a speech that he permitted extrajudicial killings in his brutal drug war, but his aides argued it was a misunderstanding and stressed his repeated past denials.
Human Rights Watch said President Rodrigo Duterte's "admission should erase any doubt about the culpability of the president" and prod the International Criminal Court to hasten a review of a complaint against him for mass murder.
"Truly, a fish is caught by its mouth and a foul man by his deeds," opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said. She added that the alleged admission "will serve to contribute in moving forward national and international efforts to exact accountability from the president and his cohorts."
In a speech to government executives on Thursday, Duterte said he had told the military they could remove him if they were unsatisfied with his rule, and asked what "sins" he had committed. "Did I steal even a peso?" he said. "My only sin is the extrajudicial killings."
Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said Duterte meant drug killings are the only accusation of wrongdoing brought against him. Panelo suggested that the president may not have expressed himself clearly in Tagalog, the national language, and noted that he had repeatedly denied condoning unlawful killings by law enforcers in the past.
Duterte has said he sometimes finds it difficult to speak in Tagalog because he's more proficient in Bisaya, the widely spoken dialect in the south, where he served as a longtime mayor before becoming president in 2016.
Duterte has denied allowing extrajudicial killings, although he has repeatedly and publicly threatened drug suspects with death.
In the same speech on Thursday, Duterte, a former government prosecutor, repeated his defense against allegations that he was involved in the killings of drug suspects in reported clashes with police.
"Four thousand deaths. When? Where? How? What did I use? Nothing," he said, adding that most drug suspects died because they fought back and endangered the lives of police officers.
Duterte acknowledged that some policemen are involved in the drug trade. "And they are the ones killing, when you could not remit (the money) to them," he said.
Police say at least 4,854 suspects have been killed in the anti-drug campaign since Duterte took office, with more than 155,000 others arrested in the unprecedented crackdown that has alarmed Western governments and U.N. groups. Human rights organizations have cited much higher death tolls.