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Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, campaigned as a tough-on-crime candidate, threatening death for drug dealers.
And in the seven weeks since he took office, nearly 1,800 alleged criminals have died — at the hands of police or under mysterious circumstances. The wave of extrajudicial killings has prompted outcry from human rights watchdogs, the Catholic Church and the United Nations.
Now the Philippine Senate is investigating the deaths. Observers believed there had been hundreds. Then, in a committee meeting Monday, the national police chief said that since Duterte was elected, police operations have killed 712 alleged drug traffickers and users. An additional 1,067 killings occurred under unclear circumstances, he said; observers believe some were carried out by vigilantes.
"This is like anarchy," Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV told the police chief, according to The Associated Press. "It's continuing under your watch."
Rhetoric warned of death for criminals
As The Two-Way has reported, Duterte is nicknamed "The Punisher" and has spoken bluntly — even shockingly — about his determination to crack down on crime. It was his central campaign promise.
He pledged to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months as president, and drop their bodies in Manila Bay until "the fish will grow fat," The New York Times has reported.
He told corrupt cops he would kill them. "Don't take this as a joke. I'm not making you laugh," Duterte said, as translated by CNN Philippines. "Son of a bitch, I will kill you."
He has called on everyday citizens to shoot drug dealers. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun, you have my support," he said, according to Newsweek. "Shoot him and I'll give you a medal."
He emphasized his message in his final campaign speech.
"Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings ... I'll kill you," he said, as The Guardian reported.
Duterte frequently referenced his seven terms as mayor of Davao City on the campaign trail. During his tenure, crime was strikingly reduced in the city, once known as the Philippines' murder capital.
Duterte has variously denied and confirmed ordering execution-style street killings in Davao City — at times he has even claimed to have personally killed criminals. In a TV interview, when the interviewer asked about the 700 extrajudicial killings during his tenure, he corrected the record: It was 1,700, he said.
His tough-on-crime message was popular during the presidential campaign, and Duterte won in a landslide.
After election, concerns about crackdown
As soon as he took office, Duterte initiated a broad crackdown on the drug trade — and observers quickly noticed a rise in extrajudicial killings.
Philippine news outlet ABS-CBN tracked an increase in reports of drug-related deaths that began after Duterte's election and spiked upward when he took office.
Not everyone has been opposed to the crackdown, as Michael Sullivan reported for NPR. It was, after all, exactly what Duterte had promised to do. Many Filipinos, perceiving a culture of impunity, are impressed that Duterte takes a hard line against corrupt cops as well as against street criminals, Sullivan says.
But human rights advocates were worried from the very beginning of Duterte's term.
"Few doubt his sincerity or resolve" to fight crime, Sullivan says. "It's his methods that have brought opposition."
The alleged extrajudicial killings are carried out without a trial. Some purported dealers and users are killed by police; in other cases, bodies are found on the street, sometimes with cardboard signs from apparent vigilantes declaring that the deceased was a drug dealer, The New York Times reports. The newspaper highlighted one case in particular — where a father and son were both killed while in police custody — that has captured attention in the Philippines.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, brought up the killings of drug suspects in a homily two weeks ago. He said fighting drug addiction couldn't justify the deaths.
"Are we providing our children a safe haven, by teaching them by our tolerance of murders, that killing suspected criminals without fair hearing is a morally acceptable way to eradicate crime?" he asked. "From a generation of drug addicts shall we become a generation of street murderers?"
Now a Senate justice committee led by Sen. Leila de Lima is investigating the killings. De Lima has said she's worried that Duterte's crackdown is enabling "murder with impunity" by police and vigilantes, the AP reports.
In response to the inquiry, Duterte accused de Lima of personal connections to the drug trade.
Standing firm against criticism
The Associated Press reports that more than 4,000 people have been arrested for allegedly dealing drugs since Duterte took office. "Nearly 600,000 people have surrendered to authorities, hoping to avoid getting killed," the wire service writes. "The arrests have further overwhelmed the Philippines' overcrowded jails."
Duterte and National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa have both said they do not condone extrajudicial killings, the Philippines' ABS-CBN News reports.
Duterte said police should kill only in self-defense, but also said "the fight against drugs will continue unrelenting," Reuters reports.
And the president made international news in his response to criticism from the United Nations.
Agnes Callamard, U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary executions, said in regard to the Philippines that "claims to fight illicit drug trade ... do not shield state actors or others from responsibility for illegal killings."
In response, Duterte threatened to leave the U.N.
"Maybe we'll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you're that rude, son of a bitch, we'll just leave you," he said, according to the AP.
Asked about possible repercussions of making such a claim, Duterte said: "I don't give a shit about them. They are the ones interfering."
He highlighted the war in Syria as a failure of the "stupid" U.N.
The Philippines' foreign minister later said the country would not be leaving the U.N. and that Duterte was just expressing frustration.
The U.S., a major ally of the Philippines, has also expressed concern over the wave of extrajudicial killings. In response, the AP reports, Duterte asked the U.S. to answer for police shootings of black people.