The Philippines is facing calls to investigate its brash, populist President over allegations he had a hand in more than 1,000 murders when he was mayor of the southern city of Davao.
A self-confessed assassin told a Senate inquiry on Thursday President Rodrigo Duterte himself or active-duty police officers assigned to him gave orders to kill not just criminals but also his opponents.
The witness, Mr Edgar Matobato, 57, said he and a small band of killers known in Davao as the "Lambada boys" murdered at least 1,000 people from 1988 to 2013.
In harrowing details, he described how his squad strangled and disembowelled suspects they picked up, or hacked them to pieces and torched them, or dumped their bodies at sea. One man, suspected of leading a gang of kidnappers, was fed alive to a crocodile, he said.
Mr Matobato said he even saw Mr Duterte unload two magazine clips of an Uzi submachine gun into a justice ministry agent whom his men had clashed with.
Representative Edcel Lagman, a human rights lawyer, said Mr Duterte himself should create an "independent fact-finding commission" consisting of retired justices to "determine the identities of the principals and perpetrators, as well as those of the victims".
Philippine Foreign Minister: US can't treat us like little brown brothers
WASHINGTON • The Philippines is firmly committed to its alliance with the United States but will not be lectured on human rights and treated like "little brown brothers", the country's Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay has said.
Speaking in Washington on Thursday, Mr Yasay rejected criticism of Mr Duterte's war on drugs, in which thousands have been killed, saying that the Philippines would never condone illegal killings, and said relations with Washington should be based on mutual respect.
"I am asking our American friends, American leaders, to look at our aspirations," he said. "We cannot forever be the little brown brothers of America... We have to develop, we have to grow and become the big brother of our own people."
"You (have to) manage it correctly. You do not go to the Philippines and say 'I am going to give you something, I am going to help you grow, but this is the checklist you must comply with - we will lecture you on human rights.'"
US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said the United Nations should step in to probe the claims. US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner, meanwhile, said: "These are serious allegations, and we take them seriously. We (will) look into them."
Even if he is found liable for the killings, Mr Duterte enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution because he is President. But he can be impeached by Congress.
Lawmakers, though, reacted to Mr Matobato's revelations with either incredulity or suspicion that there is a larger plot to unseat Mr Duterte.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, an ally of the President, said the committee handling the investigation "wasted" time when it presented Mr Matobato as a witness because his testimony was "off topic".
Mr Pimentel denied a request to put Mr Matobato under the Senate's protective custody.
The Senate inquiry, led by Senator Leila de Lima, began about a month ago, in the midst of a sudden rise in the number of drug suspects being killed either by police or vigilantes across the Philippines since Mr Duterte took office on June 30.
Mr Duterte's chief counsel called Mr Matobato a "perjured witness", suggesting he was coached by Ms De Lima, who had been going after Mr Duterte since 2009, when she was the human rights commission chief.
Representative Prospero Nograles, once a political foe of Mr Duterte, called Mr Matobato's account that four of his bodyguards were executed "a blatant lie".
"They're still alive," he said.
The family of Mr Richard King, a wealthy businessman that Mr Matobato said Mr Duterte's son ordered gunned down in 2014, also insisted the real killers were already behind bars. The family's lawyer Deolito Alvarez said: "The statement of witness Matobato, in trying to cast a cloud and put politics into the equation, is not true."