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Under New Philippine President, Hundreds Have Died In Extrajudicial Killings

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Rodrigo Duterte has been president of the Philippines for less than 60 days. And during that time, almost 2,000 people alleged to be involved with drugs have been killed. That's according to Philippine police. Duterte was elected on a strict law-and-order and anti-drug platform.

In fact, as president elect, he offered medals and cash rewards for citizens who shot dealers dead. Now people are being gunned down on the streets by citizens and the police. Let's talk about the situation with Chito Gascon. He is in Manila. He's the chairman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. Good morning.

JOSE LUIS MARTIN GASCON: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So can you just explain to us what is going on here? What is the president trying to accomplish? And what are you seeing?

GASCON: Well, he ran on a law-and-order platform. And it just caught fire. He was an underdog at the beginning of the campaign. But by Election Day, he won the plurality. And he's now, as you said, president for less than 60 days. And he's done a relentless campaign against crime that has resulted in multiple deaths, about 760 from police operations and the larger number of about 1,160 deaths resulting from vigilante killings, ostensively of people who are involved in drugs.

GREENE: Is this vigilante killing, as you described it, is that legal in the Philippines?

GASCON: Certainly not. Those are outright murders. And the problem is we actually have not identified who these vigilantes are.

So we can't eliminate the possibility that they have either connections with drug syndicates and there's incipient war between or across different drug syndicates - or it's also possible that there are police involved. And they're probably trying to eliminate direct connections on the ground.

GREENE: Does the president have support for this harsh campaign?

GASCON: At this point in time, very much so. As I said, he was elected on that platform and won a significant plurality. And since then, since assuming office, his trust ratings, if you believe the polling, is at 91 percent trust rating. So there is an overwhelming support for what he's doing currently. Nonetheless, human rights groups are speaking out. The Commission Human Rights and other concerned groups are undertaking their own investigation and documentation. We hope over time, the truth will come out about this.

GREENE: I guess I just want to finish with this question. I mean, you think about - you have a president here who's very harsh policy has a lot of support. His approval rating is soaring. But he's doing something that you describe as murderous. What is at stake here for this country and how this plays out?

GASCON: Well, what is at stake here is our constitution. We have a bill of rights that guarantees due processes and presumption of innocence. We have also established norms for conducting police operations and respect for human rights. So all of these is - are on the chopping block at this point in time.

Of course, the administration keeps saying that they will be aboveboard. And they will just follow the law. But there are shortcuts that are being taken and lines that are being crossed. And we hope that the institutions of democracy in this country will be strong enough and resilient enough to hold everyone to account in due time.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking to Chito Gascon. He's chairman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. And he joined us from Manila. Mr. Gascon, thanks so much.

GASCON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.