Two Philippine senators have said President Rodrigo Duterte’s admission that he used to personally kill suspected criminals when mayor of Davao city is grounds for impeachment.
Senator Leila de Lima, Duterte’s foremost domestic critic, and Senator Richard Gordon, who heads the senate justice committee, said the president’s comments provided a legal avenue for his ousting.
“That is betrayal of public trust and that constitutes high crimes because mass murders certainly fall into the category of high crimes. And high crimes is a ground for impeachment under the constitution,” de Lima told CNN.
Speaking to reporters, Gordon said: “When he says that, he’s opening himself up, so what’s the legal way, then go ahead and impeach him.”
But justice minister Vitaliano Aguirre waved away Duterte’s comments as “hyperbole”.
“He always exaggerates just to put his message across,” Aguirre said, adding that even if Duterte had killed, he did not necessarily break the law.
“It could be done with a justifiable cause and justified circumstances as a public officer in order to arrest but if they resisted. He must have been forced,” he said.
Any move to impeach Duterte is unlikely to succeed. Not only does he command huge domestic support for his bloody war on drugs, the firebrand nicknamed “the Punisher” also has allies in the lower and upper house of congress.
Although only a one-thirds vote in the house of representatives is needed to start the process of of impeachment, conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the senate.
De Lima, a former justice minister in a previous administration, had led an inquiry into the war on drugs, and has been the target of hatred for speaking out against Duterte. Allies of the president filed a criminal complaint against her this week.
Senators loyal to Duterte ousted her from the leadership of the inquiry in September, alleging she had disrespected the house of representatives – a complaint that could result in jail time.
The president’s anti-drug campaign has seen around 5,000 people killed during his first five months in office. Alleged drug dealers and drug addicts have been shot dead in extrajudicial killings.
This week, Duterte said that during his two decades as mayor of Davao he used to “personally” attack suspects “just to show to the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can’t you?”
He went on: “I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also.
“I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”
Peter Wallace, who organised the business forum at which Duterte spoke on Monday, said the statement was the leader’s “usual bravado”.
“He talked as he often does about drugs and killings and criminality. And we had expected that he would, but we were there not to listen to that,” Wallace told Reuters by phone.
“We were there to talk to him or listen to him about business issues and I was pleased that … he moved on to those subjects,” he said.
Since Duterte’s election, police have reported killing 2,086 people in anti-drug operations.
More than 3,000 others have been killed in unexplained circumstances, according to official figures, which human rights groups blame on state-sponsored vigilantism and gangs exploiting an atmosphere of impunity.
Reuters contributed to this report