MANILA (AFP, REUTERS) - The US ambassador to the Philippines called Tuesday (Aug 22) for “full accountability” while the country's opposition politicians urged President Rodrigo Duterte to quell a surge in drug-related killings following the alleged murder by local police of a 17-year-old boy as part of Mr Duterte’s drug war.
Allegations of police abuse and a cover-up in last week's death of Kian Loyd de los Santos have caused rare outrage among a public largely supportive of Mr Duterte's campaign, which saw more than 90 people killed last week in three nights of intensified police operations.
The Grade 11 student was shot dead on Wednesday last week in a rundown area of Manila. According to a forensic expert who conducted an autopsy, Kian was shot in the back of the head and ears while on the floor, suggesting there was no gunfight, contrary to an official police report. The victim's family rejects police allegations he was a drug courier.
Mr Duterte has resolutely defended police on the front lines of his 14-month-old war on drugs, but late on Monday he said three officers involved in the teenager's killing should be punished if found to have broken the law.
Mr Duterte said he had seen the CCTV footage acquired by media which showed plain-clothes police dragging a person matching the description of Kian to a location where he was later found dead.
“My condolences go out to the family and friends of Kian. Hope that the investigations lead to full accountability,” US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim said on his Twitter account.
Mr Duterte easily won presidential elections last year after promising to wipe out drugs in the country by waging an unprecedented crackdown in which tens of thousands of people would die. Since he came into office 14 months ago, police have reported killing 3,500 people in anti-drug operations. More than 2,000 other people have been killed in drug-related crimes and thousands more murdered in unexplained circumstances, according to police data.
The United States, a longtime ally of the Philippines, had under then President Barack Obama led international criticism of Mr Duterte’s drug war. Mr Duterte reacted furiously and used the criticism as one reason for weakening his nation’s alliance with the US.
Mr Duterte has said relations with the US are better under President Donald Trump, who has praised him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”.
Mr Kim’s predecessor had repeatedly criticised President Duterte in public. Mr Kim, who has been the ambassador to the Philippines since late last year, had sought to repair bilateral relations and refrained from criticising the drug war.
Political opponents of Mr Duterte on Tuesday also urged him to end a culture of impunity and quell a surge in drug-related killings.
Opposition Senator Leila de Lima, a detained critic of Mr Duterte, challenged the President to order the police to stop killing.
"I dare you, Mr President, to issue a clear and categorical order to the entire police force to stop the killings now," Ms de Lima said in a handwritten note from a detention facility, where she is being held on charges of involvement in drugs trade inside jails. She denies the charges. "Just say it. Do it now, please."
'STIRRED INTO ACTION'
Another senator, Ms Risa Hontiveros, told the House that Mr Duterte had blood on his hands and "revelled in the deaths of drug addicts", inspiring a culture of impunity and killing.
Filipinos tired of crime and drugs and supportive of the President had woken up to what was happening, she said.
"You had no choice but to confront his death because his narrative was compelling," she said of Kian. "You felt stirred into action because you could no longer ignore the growing outrage... But Kian was not the first. That there were thousands of deaths before him and that you allowed it to happen."
Social media users, politicians of all sides and Catholic bishops have called for an impartial investigation into the surge in killings by police, which stopped suddenly when news of the teenager's death surfaced. The Senate will hold an inquiry into last week's bloodshed on Thursday.
Since Mr Duterte took office, more than 3,500 people have been killed in what the Philippine National Police says were gunfights with drug suspects who had resisted arrests.
Police say some 2,000 more people were killed in other drug-related violence that it denies involvement in. Human rights advocates, however, say the death toll in the war on drugs could be far higher than what police have reported.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino said that without the CCTV footage, the case of Kian would have gained no attention. He said Mr Duterte should stop the killings and strengthen the judiciary, education, law enforcement and rehabilitation. "There must be other ways, Mr President. There has to be other solutions to our drug menace," he said.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana urged the public to reserve judgment until facts were clear about the death of Kian, who “did not deserve to die in the manner that he did”, whether involved in drugs or not.
“If the allegations of foul play are proven, then the perpetrators must be brought to justice,” Mr Lorenzana said in a statement. “They must be made to account for what they have done.”
Separately, Mr Duterte's office and the military moved to quell speculation of discontent among the security forces about their involvement in the anti-drugs campaign.
A shadowy group of soldiers and police on Monday issued a statement calling for Mr Duterte's removal for turning the security forces into his "private army" and ordering them to carry out extrajudicial killings. The group did not identify its members.