MANILA – Malacañang on Thursday downplayed criticism that Australia’s most senior intelligence officer has received over his “fist bump” photo with President Rodrigo Duterte.
Human rights groups have called out Nick Warner, Director General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, for making Duterte’s signature clenched fist pose for a photo with the President during their meeting in Malacañang on Tuesday.
The groups said the photo gave the impression that Canberra was condoning drug-related killings under the firebrand President's anti-narcotics war.
Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, however, described the incident as a "lighthearted" moment between Duterte and Warner.
“It wasn’t meant to be in any way political. It was simply a show of... it was just a warming of relationships,” Abella said in a news conference in Malacañang.
Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch Australia director, said on Twitter that it was “sickening to see [the] head of Australia’s spy agency fist-pumping a man who has instigated the killing of thousands,” adding that “a photo like this adds insult to injury to Filipino victims [and] the families of those killed in Duterte's drug war.”
In response, Abella said: “That is the perspective of [HRW] Australia. But as far as…the situation went…it was a warm situation. It was very relational.”
The President's clenched fist pose has become his signature, as he used it throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, when he vowed to address illegal drugs, criminality and corruption.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Warner was complying with a request from Duterte and that the image did not weaken Canberra's criticism of Duterte's war on drugs.
Duterte's ferocious 14-month-old anti-drug campaign has seen thousands of Filipinos killed, many in what critics say are suspicious circumstances.
The administration has repeatedly defended the campaign, saying police only shot back in self-defense at drug suspects who have ended up dead in police operations.
"On both occasions that I've met with President Duterte, I've raised the issue of human rights and the extrajudicial killings," Bishop told reporters in Perth in western Australia.
Amnesty International said Australia must do more to try and curtail the Philippine's firebrand leader.
"Australia is sending mixed messages amid an incredible spike in killings of the Philippines poorest people," said Michael Hayworth, human rights campaigner at Amnesty International.
"Australia must condemn in the strongest terms the killings by Philippines police of people without trial," he added.
Since Duterte took office, more than 3,500 people have been killed in what the Philippine National Police (PNP) has said were gunfights with drug suspects who had resisted arrests.
The PNP has said some 2,000 more people were killed in other cases of drug-related violence where it denied involvement. Human rights advocates, however, say the death toll could be far higher than police say. – with Reuters