MANILA: Human rights activists in the Philippines expressed outrage Tuesday at a mayor who told a parliamentary inquiry he would happily murder an alleged criminal, warning his threat fuelled the country's infamous culture of impunity.
Rodrigo Duterte, a tough-talking politician nicknamed "The Punisher", issued the warning in the Senate Monday to a businessman being investigated for allegedly controlling a major rice smuggling cartel.
"If this guy would go to Davao and starts to unload smuggled rice... I will gladly kill him," Duterte, the long-time mayor and political kingpin of the southern city of Davao warned as he took the witness stand.
"I would not hesitate. I would do it for my country."
The man being threatened, Davidson Bangayan, who sat close to Duterte during the Senate hearings, made no expression as the threat was made.
He has repeatedly denied being a rice smuggler.
Rights activists said Duterte's comments reinforced a culture of injustice in the corruption-plagued Philippines, where powerful people feel free to kill or intimidate rivals and critics knowing they are above the law.
"His statement, made in the halls of an institution that makes laws, encourages this culture of impunity," the chairwoman of the Philippines' independent Commission on Human Rights, Loretta Ann Rosales, told AFP.
Rosales said her office would attempt to instigate a criminal charge of "issuing grave threats" against Duterte, which is punishable by up to six months in jail.
But a prosecutor would have to agree to file the charge, and then the case would likely take many years to complete in the overwhelmed court system.
The Philippines is one of the world's biggest rice importers and corruption in the industry has long been regarded as a major problem, with millions of dollars at stake in contracts for the country's staple food.
Duterte, 69, is loved by many of his constituents in Davao, who say that his relentless anti-crime crusade has cleaned the city of major criminal gangs.
But groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported over the years that hundreds of petty criminals, including children, have been summarily executed by so-called "Davao Death Squads" linked to local officials.
Duterte has denied being involved in them, but Human Rights Watch said in a 2009 report that he had openly supported them.
Carlos Conde, the Philippine researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday that Duterte's latest comments showed him to be an "incorrigible human rights violator".
"He cannot be allowed to get away with these threats. Given his history in Davao, it would be foolish to dismiss all this as an empty threat." (AFP)