MANILA — Malacañang on Thursday once again denied that President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign only targets the poor, following conflicting reports on the whereabouts of businessman and suspected drug bigwig Peter Lim.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año last week said Lim, a fugitive indicted on drug charges, may have already left the country. But according to the Department of Justice, Lim has no recent record of departure.
There is no confirmation yet on Lim's whereabouts, said Palace spokesman Harry Roque. But he noted that Lim is in the watchlist of the International Police, and the justice department is making sure that he had no passport.
Addressing concern that this shows the drug war treats people with connection and influence differently from impoverished suspects, Roque said, "Unang-una po wanted si Peter Lim, wala po siyang kalayaan."
(First of all, Peter Lim is wanted. He has no freedom.)
"Pangalawa po nakakulong po si Senator Leila De Lima, proof na hindi lang po mahihirap ang tina-target dito sa war on drugs," he said in a press briefing.
(Second, Senator Leila De Lima is in jail, proof that the war on drugs does not target only the poor.)
A fierce critic of Duterte's bloody drug war, De Lima was jailed in 2017 on drug charges that she said were politically motivated, which his aides deny. Several US senators and rights groups have called on the government to free her.
De Lima on Wednesday said Lim's reported escape from the Philippines was proof that Duterte's crackdown on Narcotics was "two-faced."
"Madugo lang ito kung ang sangkot ay mahirap, karaniwang taong naligaw ng landas at walang kapit. Pero walang napapanagot na totoo at malaking drug lord," she said in a statement.
"Sa akin ang bilis nila umimbento ng mga pekeng kaso, pero dito kay Peter Lim na may tunay na batayan, nakatakas lang. What a shame! What a corruption!"
(It is just bloody when those involved are poor, usually those who lost their path and lack connections. But there no drug lord has been held accountable.)
Duterte, she noted, is a "kumpare" or co-wedding sponsor of Lim, who has denied allegations against him.
The DOJ had accused Lim of supplying at least 90 kilos of shabu to the so-called Espinosa drug group in Regions 7 and 8 in 2013 and 2015. Separate drug transactions also allegedly took place, with an unspecified volume of shabu, in 2014.
The war on drugs is Duterte's signature policy initiative and he defends it fiercely, especially from critics such as Western leaders and institutions which he says do not care about the Philippines.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in over 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since July 2016, according to official data. Human rights groups estimate the number of dead could be several times higher.
Many suspects have been put on "drug watch lists" by local officials and then visited by police at their homes -- a situation which often ends in a deadly shooting that officers claim was self-defense.
A prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has requested a full-blown inquiry into the alleged crimes against humanity under Duterte's flagship campaign.
Duterte refuses to submit to the probe. In 2019, he withdrew the Philippines from the ICC after it launched a preliminary examination into the war on drugs.
The court could still investigate crimes committed while the country was a member, ICC's former chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has said.
— With reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse
Video courtesy of PTV