MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – More than 1,000 people took to the streets of Manila on Saturday, February 25, to protest Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs, following the arrest of his most high-profile critic.
The protesters massed outside the national police headquarters where Senator Leila de Lima was detained on Friday, February 24, in a demonstration against the alleged death-squad murders of thousands of drug suspects.
Demonstrators warned the Duterte crackdown could lead to a repeat of the military-backed dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, which was toppled in a bloodless "People Power" revolution 31 years ago to the day.
"We are taking the matter seriously. We are warning our people about the threat of rising fascism," Bonifacio Ilagan, who led one of the protests outside the police headquarters, told Agence France-Presse.
Since Duterte came to power in July last year, more than 6,500 drug suspects have been killed by police and unknown assassins, according to official tallies. (READ: IN NUMBERS: The Philippines' 'war on drugs')
The 71-year-old firebrand has not ruled out using martial law to prevent what he describes as the country's slide to narco-state status.
Duterte, who ranks Marcos as one of the country's best-ever presidents, last year allowed the Marcos family to bury the former leader's remains at Manila's Cemetery for Heroes, leading to large street protests. (READ: TIMELINE: The Marcos burial controversy)
In a separate demonstration Saturday, around 150 anti-Marcos protesters chanting "Exhume him" marched on the cemetery where his body is buried, but riot police stopped them near the gate, an AFP photographer saw.
Earlier in the day, police hosed down a group of at least 100 people protesting the drug killings, though no one was seriously injured, local news reports and television footage showed.
Street protests were expected to continue later with thousands of supporters of Senator De Lima set to join another rally. (READ: Schedule: EDSA 31st anniversary rallies)
De Lima was arrested Friday on charges of drug trafficking that she described as meant to silence her.
The former human rights commissioner said the arrest was an act of revenge for her decade-long efforts to expose Duterte as the leader of death squads during his time as mayor of the southern city of Davao. (READ: Leila de Lima: From high-flying lawyer to rights crusader)
An overnight vigil to demonstrate public backing for Duterte's drug crackdown was also scheduled in Manila later Saturday, with organizers calling on a "million" supporters to turn up.
'Expanded' drug war
In a statement, Human Rights Watch urged concerned foreign governments to drum up support for an international investigation into Duterte's "expanded" war on drugs which has also claimed as its casualty the freedom of its top critic, De Lima.
“Governments concerned about the future of the Philippines need to publicly express their outrage and bring pressure for an international investigation and an end to Duterte’s sinister and deadly campaign," said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at HRW.
HRW said on Saturday that De Lima's arrest in effect expanded the drug war to include administration critics like the senator.
“By arresting Senator Leila de Lima on politically motivated drug charges, President Duterte is effectively expanding his ‘drug war’ from the urban poor to the legislative branch of the government. Not only Congress, but other pillars of Philippine democracy, from the press to the judiciary, should be deeply worried," Kine said.
“The arrest of Senator de Lima is both a political attack on her and a warning to all critics of Duterte’s ‘drug war,’” he added. – Rappler.com