MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines on Thursday dismissed as "thoughtless and irresponsible" a report by Human Rights Watch that President Rodrigo Duterte had turned a blind eye to murders by police in what the group called a "campaign of extrajudicial execution".
Duterte's signature war on drugs was in the best interests of Filipinos and the New York-based group's allegations of systematic police abuse were "hearsay" and not supported by evidence, said presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella.
"All these accusations of circumventing police procedures should be proven in a competent court and if found meritorious should result in appropriate sanctions against the perpetrators," Abella said in a statement.
"Failing these, such claims are mere hearsay."
The report, "License to Kill", documented 24 cases in which 32 people had been killed, where police accounts were starkly different from those of witnesses, who detailed "cold blooded murders" of unarmed drugs suspects.
Official records said the killings were in self-defense.
Reuters last year looked at the citing of self-defense as the reason behind numerous killings in police operations, with a 97 percent kill rate the strongest proof yet that police were summarily shooting drug suspects.
Human Rights Watch found no distinction between killings in police operations and those the authorities attributed to unknown gunmen or vigilantes. In some of those cases, the victims had hours earlier been in police custody, it added.
About 8,000 people have died since the crackdown was launched in June last year, 2,555 in police operations and the circumstances of many of the rest much in dispute.
Abella's statement addressed only a few of the allegations, such as the planting of evidence and firearms, and did not respond to many of the report's findings.
'DO NOT GENERALIZE'
Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Dionardo Carlos told Human Rights Watch "do not generalize" and said the 24 cases it looked into were insufficient to conclude that widespread abuses took place.
Carlos said the PNP's Internal Affairs Service had handled 2,000 complaints and found violations in only 28 cases.
"If there is evidence that would point to the violations of these police officers, file cases against them," he told reporters.
"We will not allow these officers to commit wrongdoings."
Human Rights Watch also noted community "watch lists" to warn drug users or identify candidates for rehabilitation involved visits that turned out to be a "method of confirming the identity and whereabouts of a target".
In one of a series of investigative reports last year Reuters found "watch lists" were effectively hit-lists, with many of the people named on them ending up dead.
Human Rights Watch said though there was no evidence showing Duterte or top officials planned or ordered extrajudicial killings, they could be implicated through incitement to violence, to instigate murder, and crimes against humanity.
The media, rights groups, the United Nations and foreign governments had informed Duterte what was happening, yet nothing had been done to stop the illegal killing, it added.
"His public comments in response to those allegations are evidence he knows about them," it said.
Duterte did not explicitly mention the report in a speech on Thursday, but he defended himself and his crackdown and said his actions were lawful.
"My order to the police and the military was very clear – go out, hunt for them, make them surrender so that you would know their connections, and we can gather more evidence," he said.
"But if they present a violent resistance, thereby placing your life in danger, son of a bitch, kill them. There's nothing illegal there. Why would you put me in prison?"
(Reporting by Martin Petty and Enrico Dela Cruz; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)