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Duterte and Davao Death Squad: 'Defending the indefensible'

MANILA, Philippines – Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phelim Kine on Monday, May 25, called Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s “justification” of the need for a so-called “death squad” to solve crime in his city as merely an “attempted defense of the indefensible.”

“Our concerns are that Mayor Duterte has continued to assert that extra judicial killings are a prescription for solving crime problems which is an absolute attempted defense of the indefensible,” Kine said in an interview on #RapplerTalk.

Duterte made – and continues to make – national headlines for his unapologetic and tough stand against crime in his city. (READ: Investigate Duterte's role in death squads – HRW)

Tagged the country’s “Punisher,” Duterte has long been linked to the Davao Death Squad (DDS), a loose group of vigilantes in the city that target known criminals.

In an interview on a local television program over the weekend, Duterte said he was the DDS. "Am I the death squad? True," he said. It was an oft-repeated line that he was using this time to challenge human rights advocates to file a case against him in his territory.

Last week, the HRW called on the Philippine government to probe Duterte’s involvement in the extra-judicial killings committed by the DDS.

“Mayor Duterte’s statements are something that should be of great interest to the Ombudsman, the Philippine police because he is apparently attempting to claim responsibility for death squad activities that has claimed the lives of many Filipinos,” Kline told Rappler on Monday.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, former chairperson of the Philippines' Commission on Human Rights (CHR), said on Monday that Duterte's latest statements were "simply unacceptable."

She also called Duterte's pronouncements "annoying and disturbing." 

Culture of tolerance?

But not all Filipinos share Kline's and other human rights groups’ stand when it comes to Duterte. The Davao mayor has surged in early 2016 presidential polls.

He has been on “listening tours” around the country and even in Hong Kong, further sparking talks of the Davao mayor seeking a national post.

Duterte has been quick to clarify that the tour is not meant to prepare him for a presidential or vice presidential run, but merely a means to promote a shift to a federal form of government.

His anti-crime methods, although questionable to many, also find a support base for some Filipinos who view the country’s slow justice system as tedious.

Before the national gathering of Workplace Advocates on Safety in the Philippines on May 15, Duterte said that Davao is the 9th safest city in the world because his approach to criminality is simple: kill the criminals.

In 2012, the CHR recommended that the Ombudsman probe Duterte for his alleged links to the DDS. Kline noted that this recommendation fell on deaf ears.

"There has not been any type of high profile challenge to Mayor Duterte’s statements through the years – of which there have been many. I think it’s fair to say, if you look at the record, that there has been and continues to be a tolerance and a blind eye to the extremely objectionable statements that Mayor Duterte makes about killing people without any kind of legal process,” added Kline.

To Aquino gov’t: Take a stand

Kline also called on the Aquino administration to “state loud and clear” its stand on the issue of extrajudicial killings in the country, which he said has “no place in a modern, democratic society like the Philippines.” (READ: Palace reminds Duterte: We don't just shoot criminals)

“Part of that is that [the Aquino administration] will not accept any publicly elected official to express support for such absolutely abusive methods of ‘crime control,’” said Kline.

On the issue of the efficacy of death squads in controling crime, Kline pointed to a case close to Davao: alleged death squads in Tagum City. The HRW found that the death squad allegedly formed by former Tagum Mayor Rey Uy eventually “morphed” into a “freelance kill-for-hire operation” that answered to no one.

“My message is this: giving the green light or public credit to a death squad operation is probably one of the most dangerous things that a society can do,” he said.

'PH deserves better'

Also on Monday, De Lima called on Filipinos to stop "idolizing" Duterte.

"'Yung iba sa atin, natutuwa pa! Lalong ina-idolize si Mayor Duterte. But, is that right? Hindi po tama 'yun! Killing is killing, no matter what! Killing is killing, and therefore, kung ina-admit niya that he is responsible for these killings, then he must be criminally liable," she told reporters in a chance interview. 

(There are some of us who like Duterte's style. They idolize Mayor Duterte even more. But, is that right? It isn't! Killing is killing, no matter what! Killing is killing, and therefore, if he admits that he's responsible for these killings, then he must be criminally liable.)

Without going into details, De Lima said the National Bureau of Investigation, which is under her department, has already launched a probe into the allegations against Duterte.

A witness against the Davao mayor has apparently come forward. 

“The Philippines deserves better. It’s a society that has transformed from an authoritarian dictatorship to a rule of law, right respecting country. And to allow death squads to operate publicly and to be praised by public official sis an absolute wrong step in the wrong direction,” added Kline.

Duterte, meanwhile, has criticized the HRW for their statement.

In a statement released through his communication team, Duterte called the human rights group “hypocrites” who should first deal with human rights issues in their own backyard.

“To all the bleeding hearts of US-based crime watch: You want a taste of justice, my style? Come to Davao City, Philippines, and do drugs in my city. I will execute you in public. And finally, you SOBs, I offer no excuses nor do I apologize. So be it,” the mayor said of the HRW’s statement. – Rappler.com