Palace defends Duterte's rape joke as 'heightened bravado'

MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang on Saturday, May 27, defended President Rodrigo Duterte from criticism at home and abroad over his latest rape joke, this time made as he rallied troops to win the war against terrorists in Mindanao under military rule.

In a statement on Saturday, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte – in a speech to troops in Iligan City on Friday, May 26 – just   "exaggeratedly" described crimes that soldiers may commit during the imposition of martial law in Mindanao to drive home his point that he was taking "full responsibility" for their actions.

"In Iligan, he gave his full support to the men and women in uniform, taking complete responsibility for their actions, even exaggeratedly describing crimes like taking a fourth wife," said Abella.

"As Commander-in-Chief, he would stand by his personnel and that no one will be abandoned including the fallen," he added.

Duterte's spokesman did not mention the Chief Executive's latest rape joke in his statement.

"PRRD is decisively acting, speaking with heightened bravado, that law and order would be brought back in these areas of rebellion in the soonest time possible and that normalcy would likewise be restored with minimal loss of lives," Abella said.

On Thursday, Duterte assured government troops that he "alone" would be responsible for the "consequences" of his martial law declaration in the region. (READ: Duterte: 'I alone' responsible for martial law aftermath)

The President then joked that he would take the place of any soldier convicted of rape committed during martial law in Mindanao. He said this amid concerns that military rule in Mindanao would lead to human rights abuses similar to what thousands suffered during the Marcos regime, when many victims were tortured and raped.

"I'll take your place in prison. If you rape 3 [women], I'll take the blame," said the President, who had sparked outrage during the campaign when he cracked a rape joke about an Australian missionary.

'Sickening'

Duterte has come under fire for making the joke, with Chelsea Clinton leading the online outrage and a rights group branding his sense of humor "sickening."

"Not funny. Ever," wrote the daughter of ex-US president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on her verified Twitter account.

In a second post she wrote: "Duterte is a murderous thug with no regard for human rights. It's important to keep pointing that out & that rape is never a joke."

Phelim Kine, a deputy director with Human Rights Watch's Asia division, described the joke as a "sickening attempt at humor."

He and Filipino rights activists warned it sent the wrong signal to soldiers that they could commit rights abuses as they enforced martial law in Mindanao, which Duterte imposed to quell what he says is a major Islamist terrorist threat.

"Duterte's pro-rape comments only confirm some of the worst fears of human rights activists that the Duterte government will not just turn a blind eye to possible military abuses in Mindanao, but may actively encourage them," Kine said.

Women's group Gabriela also expressed outrage. "Rape is not a joke. Martial law and the heightened vulnerability to military abuse that it brings to women and children are not a joke either," it said in a statement.

Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao on Tuesday, May 23, following clashes between the Maute terror group and the military in Marawi City. He also said he may consider expanding the declaration to cover the entire Philippines. (TIMELINE: Marawi clashes prompt martial law in all of Mindanao) – with a report from Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com