MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The U.S. government has expressed concern over extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users in a bloody crackdown overseen by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and urged his government to ensure law enforcement efforts comply with human rights obligations.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau on Monday also criticized recent remarks by Duterte about the U.S. ambassador in Manila and said Philippine officials have been asked to clarify them.
The president recently referred to U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg with a profanity and accused him of meddling in the Philippine elections.
Duterte has had an uneasy relationship with America and has said he will chart a foreign policy that is not dependent on the U.S., his country's longtime treaty ally. Duterte has also tried to repair relations with China that have been strained over escalating territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The drug crackdown has left more than 400 suspected dealers dead and more than 4,400 arrested since Duterte took office on June 30. Nearly 600,000 people have surrendered to authorities, hoping to avoid getting killed. The arrests have overwhelmed the country's mostly rundown and already-overcrowded jails.
"We are concerned by these detentions, as well as the extrajudicial killing of individuals suspected to be involved in drug activity in the Philippines," Trudeau said. "We strongly urge the Philippines to ensure its law enforcement efforts comply with its human rights obligations."
"We believe in rule of law. We believe in due process. We believe in respect for universal human rights. We believe, fundamentally, that those aspects ensure and promote long-term security," she said.
Roman Catholic church leaders and human rights groups in the Philippines have also expressed alarm over the widespread killings in reported gunbattles with police or still-unexplained deaths of drug suspects, some of whom were abandoned with cardboard messages warning the public to stay away from illegal drugs or they would die next.
Several of the slain drug suspects were killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen in attacks similar to those carried out by so-called "death squads" which were blamed for years of killings in southern Davao city while Duterte was the longtime mayor.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno raised concerns Monday in a letter to Duterte about his publicly linking seven judges — among more than 150 other officials and law enforcers — to illegal drugs over the weekend. She said three of the judges he named have either died, were dismissed or have retired. She cautioned the rest not to surrender to police without any arrest warrants.
"It would matter greatly to our sense of constitutional order, if we were given the chance to administer the appropriate preventive measures without the complications of a premature public announcement," Sereno told Duterte in the letter, which she made public.
Duterte reacted angrily Tuesday by saying his aggressive crackdown was meant to save Filipinos from crime and danger sparked by illegal drugs, and added that he had issued no order to law enforcers to conduct illegal killings to fight the problem.
"Would you rather that I will declare martial law?" Duterte asked in a speech before army troops.
Duterte said he is ready to step down even before his six-year term ends once he has eliminated the drug menace and carried out a campaign pledge to shift the government to a federal system.
Trudeau also criticized Duterte for his comments about Goldberg.
"We've seen those inappropriate comments made about Ambassador Goldberg. He's a multi-time ambassador, one of our most senior U.S. diplomats," she said. "We have asked the Philippine charge to come into the State Department to clarify those remarks."
In a speech before army troops on Friday in the central Philippines, Duterte described a lunch meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Manila last month. Duterte said Kerry, who offered more than $30 million in aid for law enforcement training, was "OK" but he criticized Goldberg.
"I had a feud with his ambassador, his gay ambassador. Son of a bitch, I'm annoyed with the guy. He meddled in the elections, giving statements here and there. He wasn't supposed to do that," Duterte said, without giving details.
During the presidential campaign, the Australian ambassador in Manila criticized a joke by Duterte, who said he "should have been first" in line to rape an Australian missionary who was gang raped and killed during a jail riot in 1989. Goldberg expressed support for his Australian counterpart's statement.
Duterte reacted by asking the two ambassadors to "shut up."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.