Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo slams drug war

Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo (centre) speaking during a forum at a Catholic-run school in Manila on March 15, 2017. PHOTO: AFP/OFFICE OF THE VICE-PRESIDENT

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo said Wednesday (March 15) the nation's drug war had left Filipinos feeling "hopeless and helpless", with trust in the police eroded by thousands of summary executions.

In a video message to a United Nations meeting on extrajudicial killings posted online, Robredo also called for international scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial crackdown.

"Some of those have told us that when there's crime, they normally go to the police. Now, they don't know where to turn," Robredo said in the message, which was released to the media ahead of its scheduled screening at the UN gathering in Austria on Thursday.

"Our people feel both hopeless and helpless: a state of mind that we must all take seriously."

Duterte won presidential elections last year after promising to eradicate illegal drugs with an unprecedented crackdown in which tens of thousands of people would die.

But the vice-president is elected separately in the Philippines and Robredo, who belongs to a rival political party, has in recent months stepped up her criticism of the drug war.

Since Duterte took office at the end of June, police have reported killing 2,500 people in anti-drug operations while about 4,500 others have died in unexplained circumstances.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned Duterte may be overseeing crimes against humanity, with state-sanctioned killings.

Duterte and his police chiefs have insisted security forces are not breaking any laws.

They have said nearly all of those killed by police were in self-defence while the unexplained deaths were likely due to drug gangs eliminating rivals or others who could implicate them.

In her message to the United Nations, Robredo described all those deaths as "summary executions".

"We are now looking at some very grim statistics: since July last year, more than 7,000 people have been killed in summary executions," Robredo said.

Robredo also said police were detaining innocent people in a scheme known as "exchange heads".

In this, if police officers could not find a drug suspect, they would detain one of his or her relatives instead, according to Robredo.

While Duterte has repeatedly railed against international human rights groups and other foreign critics of his drug war, Robredo invited more scrutiny.

"To know that the international community's eyes are on us and to feel that human rights advocates are watching over our country gives us comfort, courage and hope," she said.

National police spokesman Dionardo Carlos on Wednesday rejected Robredo's assertions, saying they did not reflect "the general situation".

He also denied that police were carrying out the "exchange heads" scheme.

"This is not the norm. This is not the practice," Carlos told reporters.

Duterte sacked Robredo from his cabinet in December after she started speaking out against the drug war and some of his other policies.

But her comments to the UN meeting were among her strongest criticisms and came as rights groups warned of a rising climate of fear that is leaving many people unwilling to speak out against Duterte or police abuse.

Senator Leila de Lima, another top Duterte critic, was arrested last month on drug trafficking charges which rights groups insisted were manufactured to silence her and intimidate others.

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