Manila (AFP) – The Philippines on Monday released the names of over 200 local elected officials with alleged links to drugs, rejecting concerns it amounted to a “hit list” in President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly narcotics crackdown.
The names were made public on Duterte’s orders two weeks ahead of local polls in a nation where electoral campaigns often result in bloody violence.
“The disclosure of the names of barangay (district) officials involved in the illegal drugs business is first and foremost a direct order from President Rodrigo Duterte,” Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief Aaron Aquino told reporters.
Authorities said the list was a way to name and shame the 207 officials as the May 14 local elections approach, but rights advocates said it could amount to an incitement to kill.
“These lists subvert due process and (are), at best, a form of trial by publicity. At worst, it is a hit list,” Carlos Conde, a Filipino campaigner for the US-based monitor Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
Duterte vowed in the 2016 presidential campaign to kill 100,000 criminals to rid the country of the scourge of drugs, and police have since killed more than 4,100 alleged drug dealers and addicts whom they accused of resisting arrest.
Rights groups allege the actual number of dead is at least three times that figure, including those murdered by shadowy vigilantes.
Philippine elections have a history of localised violence that predates the drug war, as some politicians resort to force to eliminate opponents or prevent rival supporters from voting.
At least 15 people were killed in election-related violence during the 2016 vote, according to official records, when thousands of spots were contested ranging from president to municipal council seats.
Authorities released the names on the list Monday despite conceding they did not have enough evidence to charge any of them with drug-related offences.
Aquino said four police and intelligence agencies have established that these officials were either users, dealers or even drug lords, but that most allowed the narcotics trade to flourish in their districts.
Opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan, two of whose Liberal Party members were on the list, urged the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to recall it.
“Releasing their names to the public without showing any evidence other than their say-so puts all of those on that government list in danger of being killed in the state-sponsored drug war,” he said in a statement.
“Given the thousands of killings related to the drug war, publicly releasing this list may be seen as instigating, inducing and encouraging more extrajudicial killings,” Pangilinan added.
AFP visited the offices of two Manila district chiefs on the narco list and called the offices of some of the others in the region, but aides said they were not reachable.
“I don’t believe it is equivalent to a hit list,” Aquino said, and the government was assuring them of protection so that “nobody will harm them”.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said the public has a right to know the actions of their officials, whom he said were not entitled to privacy.
“They will have a chance to defend themselves. We are observing due process,” Ano added.
These names were the first to be made public from a master list, now numbering more than 6,000 according to Duterte, that he began compiling after his election.
The local elections were set to be held in 2016 but the president postponed them, floating the idea at one point of appointing the officials himself.