MANILA - Philippines boxing icon and presidential candidate Manny Pacquiao said he will welcome an international probe into President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs if elected, and promised to fight narcotics "the right way", with due process, not street shootings.
In remarks this week to foreign journalists, Pacquiao, a former multi-division world boxing champion and once a staunch ally of the president, said he would be open to rejoining the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Duterte unilaterally withdrew the Philippines from in 2018.
Pacman, as he is known in the Philippines, is trailing in opinion polls in the run up to the May election, behind frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Vice President Leni Robredo.
A survey of 1,200 respondents commissioned by the Stratbase think tank and conducted between Jan. 28-31 showed Marcos with 50% support, Robredo with 19%, and Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso tied at 11%.
Duterte's presidency has been defined by his war on drugs, during which thousands of alleged dealers have been killed.
Rights groups and critics say law enforcers have summarily executed drug suspects, but police say those killed were armed and had violently resisted arrest.
Pacquiao, 43, has sought to set himself apart from Duterte, saying he will "continue the war on illegal drugs in the right way", with suspects given a fair trial and rehabilitated.
"When I said the right way, we will not kill them in the streets," he said on Monday.
"They will be given the right to defend themselves in court."
Duterte caused international outrage with his war on drugs and has dared the ICC to investigate him for crimes against humanity.
He has maintained those killed were all dealers who had violently resisted arrest and has publicly encouraged police to shoot suspects in self-defense, and said he would pardon those jailed for the killings.
The president's office did not respond to requests for comment on Pacquiao's remarks.
Analysts say an ally getting elected president this year could protect Duterte from any legal action over his anti-narcotics program.
"I believe there (have been) extrajudicial killings," Pacquiao said of the crackdown. "We should give justice to those abused."
Pacquiao, an incumbent senator, has also sparred with Duterte over his approach to defending maritime sovereignty, calling the president's refusal to confront China "disheartening".
Pacquiao said he plans to address the problem through a "peace panel" but did not elaborate.
A former ship stowaway who learned to box in a Manila slum, Pacquiao also said he is certain lower-income voters will turn out in force to elect him.
(Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Raju Gopalakrishnan)