By John Chalmers
MANILA (Reuters) – A Philippines senator who is leading an inquiry into the spate of killings unleashed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ vowed on Monday to press on despite bizarre accusations and insults raining on her from the country’s leader.
Leila de Lima told Reuters she has no fears for her own life because it would be clear who was to blame if anything happened to her, but she has been warned by people close to Duterte to stop questioning the extra-judicial killings.
“Some of my closest friends, some of my family are pleading with me ‘you better stop already, stop it, stop it, keep quiet or just quit so they leave you alone’. But I cannot do that,” the 57-year-old lawyer and politician said in her Senate office.
More than 1,900 people have been killed in Duterte’s war on drugs since he came to power two months ago, according to police figures. Police say the toll of about 36 people a day is a result of drug dealers resisting arrest or gang feuds.
De Lima set up a Senate inquiry into the killings and held the first two hearings last week.
On Thursday, Duterte accused de Lima of taking bribes from jailed drug lords. He has also said she is having an affair with her driver and at a news conference declared she was “finished”.
On Monday he attacked her again, saying de Lima had lost face as a woman and that if he were her he would hang himself.
“What they are doing to me is even worse than death. The honor, especially my womanhood, my reputation,” said de Lima, who denies all the allegations Duterte has made against her.
Duterte, sometimes known as ‘The Punisher’, won a May election on a promise to wipe out drugs and dealers.
But there has been an outcry from human rights groups over the sheer number of deaths that followed Duterte’s victory and over his incendiary rhetoric, which they say encourages police to feel they can kill with impunity.
There have been cases when police officers have killed suspected drug dealers who were in handcuffs and in custody, civil rights lawyers have said.
“A CLIMATE OF FEAR”
There have also been hundreds of killings by anonymous gunmen. De Lima said witnesses had told her about one case involving a group of men dressed as civilians and wearing masks.
“From all indications, based on the account of those who witnessed it, those were actually police,” she said. “Are these death squads? Who are they, and under whose direction are they doing that?”
She said despite Duterte’s promises to go after drug syndicates and kingpins, it is mostly the poor who are dying.
“The ones being targeted are the powerless, the voiceless, the defenseless, because they are so poor. Where is the justice there, there’s so much injustice,” she said.
She said her Senate committee, which is due to hold another hearing on Thursday, was seeking facts – but it had no power to accuse or pursue any individual.
De Lima is hoping the hearings will speed the passage of legislation that has been stuck in Congress that would make extra-judicial killing a special crime with harsh penalties.
She also wants to bolster the independent Commission on Human Rights (CHR) so it has more capacity to investigate violations.
De Lima said that the CHR and the police’s internal affairs service were both overwhelmed and could only do so much, and a climate of fear meant people were reluctant to speak out.
“It’s only the president who can stop all of this,” she said. “I call this madness really.”
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)