Critics of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte have called for his prosecution after remarks in which he appeared to take responsibility for extrajudicial killings in the country.
During a speech at the presidential palace on Thursday, Duterte said: “What are my sins? Did I steal money? Even just one peso? Did I prosecute somebody I sent to jail? My only sin is extrajudicial killings.”
President Duterte is currently facing two charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In August, activists and families of eight victims of the Philippines’ “war on drugs” called for the president’s indictment over thousands of extrajudicial killings during his crackdown on drugs.
On Friday, opposition Senator Rizza Hontiveros said Duterte’s “verbal admission will serve as solid evidence in the people’s quest for justice”.
“It will serve to contribute in moving forward national and international efforts to exact accountability from the president and his cohort,” said Hontiveros.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque attempted to backtrack from the comments.
“You know the president. He wasn’t serious,” Roque told local radio station DZRH on Friday.
“That’s the president being himself, being playful, highlighting the point that he isn’t corrupt.”
In his Thursday speech, Duterte also said there was no evidence to implicate him in the killings.
“Four thousand deaths. When? Where? How? What did I use? Nothing,” he said.
In February, an opposition senator Antonio Trillanes said the death toll in the government’s war on drugs had surpassed 20,000 since President Duterte came to office in 2016.
In a speech before the Philippine Senate, Trillanes said the Duterte administration’s own report shows 3,967 “drug personalities” have been killed after allegedly resisting arrest during police operations between July 1, 2016 and November 27, 2017.
Rights groups said the comments should serve as evidence in the ICC probe into Duterte’s role in the deaths.
“This apparent admission by the President himself highlights the urgent need for international investigations,” Minar Pimple, a senior director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
“This ‘playful’ comment is a grotesque cruelty at best, and a damning indictment of his government’s murderous campaign at worst.”
In a statement, Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said: “This admission should erase any doubt about the culpability of the President.”
Duterte unilaterally withdrew from the ICC’s founding treaty in March, saying it skirted due process and the presumption of his innocence, and sought to portray him as a “ruthless and heartless violator of human rights”.
On Tuesday, a senator critical of Duterte’s war on drugs was arrestedin a move which was condemned as persecution of the government’s opponents.