MANILA • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has suggested that 19 police officers accused of killing a politician should spare themselves a lengthy trial and plead guilty because he plans to pardon them any way.
"I can't leave these officers behind. If they are convicted? No problem," he said. "They can call me and say they have been convicted, and I'll tell the judge to pardon them all."
He said last Friday that the officers would be not only reinstated, but also promoted.
His comments angered opposition leaders and human rights groups, who say he has abused his powers in a months-long crackdown on drug dealers and users that has left thousands of people dead.
Senator Leila de Lima, a former human rights commissioner who was jailed in February on what she has denounced as trumped-up charges, said Mr Duterte's pledge to free the police officers was "extremely disturbing."
"It's crass impunity," she said in a statement smuggled out of jail.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader, said Mr Duterte's comments meant there were some "individuals and groups who are above the law".
Mr Aquino added: "It would be better to let justice take its course before issuing promises."
The 19 officers were arrested after Rolando Espinosa Sr, the mayor of Albuera, a town in Leyte province, was shot to death last November. Espinosa was killed in his jail cell after having been arrested on a drug charge in October.
Mr Duterte had accused him of being one of 150 local officials involved in the drug trade.
The officers, led by police superintendent Marvin Marcos, have claimed that a shootout broke out in the provincial jail where Espinosa was being held, after he pulled a gun on the men who were there to serve a search warrant. Espinosa had allegedly concealed the gun in his cell.
He was the second politician on Mr Duterte's list to be killed by officers in less than two weeks.
In October last year, another mayor, Mr Samsudin Dimaukom, was gunned down by police officers after having reportedly fired at them at a checkpoint.
The case highlights Mr Duterte's attempts to silence and kill not only criminals actively involved in the drug trade, but also leaders who might oppose his policies and tactics.
NEW YORK TIMES