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Nearly 1,800 killed in Philippine drug war, top police official tells senators

MANILA — Killings by the police and vigilantes in the Philippines’ war on drugs have soared to nearly 1,800 in the seven weeks since President Rodrigo Duterte was sworn into office, the nation’s top police official told a Senate hearing on Monday.

Under Duterte, who campaigned on a pledge to rid the country of drug dealers, 712 suspects have been killed in police operations, National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa said. Vigilante killings have totaled 1,067 during the same period, he said, although it was unclear how many were directly related to the illegal drug trade.

The numbers represent a huge increase over those cited by the police last week, when they put the total at more than 800 since Duterte’s election on May 9.

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The police did not explain the sudden increase. Senators are expected to question them about the tally on Tuesday during a second day of joint hearings by the chamber’s committee on justice and human rights and the committee on public order and dangerous drugs.

Duterte is said to have incited the wave of killings with his vow to eradicate crime. He has said the police should “shoot to kill” when they encounter members of organized crime or suspects who violently resist arrest.

Human rights advocates have been horrified by the killings, but Duterte’s popularity has soared among a large segment of Filipinos weary of crime and enthusiastic about his pledge to rid the country of drug dealers.

Senator Leila de Lima, a longtime Duterte opponent who led the hearing on Monday, called on the government to end the killings.

“I strongly believe extrajudicial or extralegal killings, whether perpetrated by the state or by nonstate actors, must stop,” she said. “Blatant disregard for human life has to stop.”

Richard Javad Heydarian, who teaches political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said many members of the public were giving Duterte leeway to deliver on his promise to suppress the drug scourge within three to six months. Duterte’s “shock and awe” approach reflects not only his commitment to eradicating drugs, Heydarian said, but also extremely high public expectations.

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“The more fundamental question at this point is, why the seemingly unprecedented support for the new president despite global criticism of his uncompromising approach?” he said. “I think it largely has to do with dissipated public trust in existing judicial institutions, a sense that the normal democratic processes are not coping with the magnitude of the crisis.”

In recent days, the president has lashed out at critics. On Sunday, he threatened to withdraw from the United Nations after two human rights experts from the world body urged the country to stop the killings. Duterte’s foreign minister later said the Philippines would not take that step.

Last week, Duterte sharply criticized de Lima, calling her immoral and accusing her of receiving money from drug dealers, a charge she emphatically denies.

On Monday, the senators heard from two women whose family members had been killed by the police.

Mary Rose Aquino, who testified wearing a bandanna, sunglasses, and a hooded sweatshirt so she could not be recognized, said her parents were found dead on June 20. Her father had been an informant for corrupt police officers who would raid dealers and take the drugs for themselves, she said. Sometimes the officers would smoke methamphetamine at their home, she said.

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“I know who they are,” she told the senators. “I can recognize their faces, others by their names. My father was a police asset who informed police what houses to raid. They would then resell the drug.”

She said her parents had planned to get out of the drug trade, and she blamed the police for their deaths. She and her siblings have been hiding from the police since their parents died, she said, sobbing.