By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines' top police commander on Tuesday said he would not prevent officers involved in the country's bloody war on drugs from seeking church protection and testifying to their alleged abuses, providing they told the truth.
Police chief Ronald dela Rosa was reacting to a statement from a senior Catholic prelate expressing "willingness to grant accommodation, shelter, and protection" to police involved in unlawful killings during the 15-month-old crackdown.
More than 3,800 people have been killed during President Rodrigo Duterte's ruthless campaign, in what police say are anti-drugs operations during which suspects had violently resisted arrest.
Human rights group believe that figure, provided by the Philippine National Police (PNP), misrepresents the scale of the bloodshed, pointing to large numbers of killings by shadowy gunmen. The PNP denies allegations that assassins are operating in league with some of its officers to kill drug users.
"The pill may be bitter but we can swallow the bitter pill if that pill is true," dela Rosa told reporters, adding that he had no information that any PNP members had approached the church and wanted to speak out.
"Even if we are at the receiving end, we can take it as long as it is the truth, not just fabricated. The truth is important."
The PNP and Duterte have been on the defensive in recent weeks as scrutiny intensifies over the conduct of mostly plain-clothes officers during what the PNP calls "buy bust" sting operations.
Duterte has several times stated that he has never told police to kill, unless in self defense. His critics, however, accuse him of inciting murder in his frequent, truculent speeches.
The killings by police of two teenagers during August is the subject of an ongoing Senate inquiry. Opinion polls released in recent days, which were compiled in June, show doubt among Filipinos about police accounts. [nL4N1MD2U8] [nL4N1M82HN]
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), on Monday said some police sought church help and were struggling to come to terms with their actions. He did not identify them, or say how many sought protection.
He said the church would gauge their sincerity and honesty and establish their motives for coming forward. Priests would help "within the bounds of church and civil laws", but would not influence them to testify.
"Their consciences are troubling them," Villegas said.
"They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participating in extrajudicial killings and summary executions."
Some Senators applauded the bishops' move and urged police to testify.
"I welcome the willingness of these involved policemen to finally speak about their actual involvement in the extrajudicial killings," Grace Poe said in a statement.
"I laud the church in opening its arms wide to provide sanctuary for them."
Priests are among the most influential dissenters to take on Duterte, having initially been silent when the drugs killings started.
Some churches have given sanctuary to drug users and witnesses of killings, while some priests have denounced the bloodshed during sermons and called for bells to be rang nightly in protest. [nL4N1M32IY]
(Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)