Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte assured the prison personnel in Manila that he would defend them if their activities in the current efforts to stem the flow of drugs resulted in the death of offenders.

Duterte’s statements of June 14 come on the heels of scrutiny from the United Nations Human Rights Council concerning human rights violations by prison guards, from the Philippine Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), and other law enforcement officials. He advised them to “stay on the right track” and “just do your duty according to the books” during a speech celebrating the 28th anniversary of the BJMP.

Duterte hinted that it was not a major concern if hardened criminals get killed during an operation while they are incarcerated. He advised that anyone involved in such a situation should not lie or make up a story and that he would provide the cover story and not the people involved. He also said “If they are killed while in detention …well that’s better … We have cases like that. But I assure you, I will not abandon them,” he said referring to BJMP personnel.

Duterte was elected in 2016 on a platform to reduce drug trafficking in the country and his efforts have the support of nearly 90 percent of the Philippine population, according to a 2017 opinion survey carried out by Pulse Asia on 1,200 Filipinos.

Rodrigo Duterte President Rodrigo Roa Duterte speaks at the 39th birthday party of Boxer Manny Pacquiao at KCC convention center on December 17, 2017 in General Santos, Philippines. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images

The criticism of his methods has come mainly from outside the country including the Catholic Church, the United Nations and human rights activists, but he has faced some criticism from within the country as well. One prominent Duterte critic is Senator Leila de Lima who remains in prison for what she claims is a trumped-up drug charge. She was arrested in February, 2017. Another critic of Duterte’s drug war is former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno who was ousted by the Supreme Court acting on a petition by the government. Other critics, journalists and activists have also been subject to attacks by the government.

To date over 5,000 people have been killed in the country since 2016 as a result of the drug war. Chito Gascon, who is the chairman of the Philippine commission on human rights, has defended the killings because “anti-drugs operations carry the highest possibility of an armed encounter, especially if the suspect is armed and under the influence of illegal drugs,” according to a report in the Philippine Guardian in December last year. In that same report Gascon claimed that there were over 160,000 arrests of what he called “drug personalities” during anti-drug operations in the period from 2016 through 2018.

Duterte also mentioned during his speech to the BJMP that the Philippine government has allotted 3 billion pesos ($60 million) for 60 new prison facilities to reduce overcrowding.