MANILA - Firing the government's top anti-drug policy official sends a "chilling message" and shows President Rodrigo Duterte is unwilling to temper his brutal war on drugs, a human rights group said Thursday.
Dr. Benjamin Reyes, former Dangerous Drugs Board chairman, was supposed to present an "integrated and balanced" anti-drug policy to the president.
The six-year plan, which was earlier approved by the board, acknowledged that "the government's war on drugs will only succeed if the fight is carried out in various fronts," including a community-based rehabilitation program nationwide.
Ellecer Carlos, spokesman of the group iDEFEND, described Reyes' plan as "an honest-to-goodness attempt to actually reframe this war on drugs, which is a war on the poor."
"This layoff of the DDB chief clearly reveals that President Duterte is not open to actually adopting what we have been pushing for -- an evidence-based, human rights-centered, and effective approach to the drug issue," Carlos told ABS-CBN News.
Reyes said Thursday he was hoping the president would still adopt the Philippine Anti-Drug Strategy into an executive order to ensure sufficient funding.
Duterte fired Reyes for "contradicting" the other government estimate that there were more than three million drug users in the country today.
Reyes told ABS-CBN News the figure was "true and statistically valid."
"I never contradicted the president," he said in a text message. "I still hold the president in high regard and will be forever thankful to him for the opportunity to serve."
In an interview with ANC Tuesday, Reyes said the DDB figure of around 1.8 million drug users in 2015 could go as high as three million.
"In the campaign, you need to look at several data sources and all of these data sources are valid," he said.
"We have a data source coming from survey, we have a source coming from intelligence figures. As long as they are gathered using a valid methodology, that means these figures can be used."
Reyes has been in government for 21 years, spending most of his career at the health department were he was in charge of the agency's anti-drug programs.
He joined the DDB as deputy executive director in 2011 and was appointed chairman in August last year.
Carlos said Reyes "suffered the consequence" for not "toeing fully the government's line."
"It's a chilling message to everyone, critical-thinking public officials," Carlos said.
Last May 5, Reyes defended Duterte's war on drugs during a University of the Philippines forum thay gathered foreign drug policy experts, including UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard.
Reyes presented the DDB plan, which also acknowledged illegal drugs as a public health issue.
It involves prevention and rehabilitation strategies "firmly grounded in evidence and best available science."
Reyes said the plan included a "balanced approach" being pushed by the United Nations.
"We told them, yes, we already have that and your perception that our campaign is purely focused on the enforcement side is wrong," he told ANC the before he was sacked.
"It's a balanced strategy."