MANILA: A fierce critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly anti-drug war accepted a top post on Wednesday to help steer the campaign, pledging to halt killings of the innocent. While critics said the appointment is an effort to tarnish an adversary, the move will put Leni Robredo in the cockpit of the internationally condemned crackdown.
Duterte offered the post to Robredo, who is vice president but was elected separately, after her repeated criticism of a campaign that has killed thousands. "I want to fix the campaign against illegal drugs, stop the killing of innocents and bring to account abusive officials," Robredo told a press conference. She will be the co-chair of a committee responsible for overseeing the crackdown, which was until now led by the national anti-drugs agency.

Duterte critics were skeptical of the appointment, with Senator Lila de Lima calling it a "silly trap". The president wants to "create the narrative of putting all the blame of his failures on someone else", added De Lima, who is imprisoned on drug charges she says are politically motivated. Opinion polls say the drug war has the overwhelming backing of Filipinos, yet it has high-profile critics among opposition politicians, the powerful Catholic church and advocacy groups.

'Brink of surrender'

Foreign institutions have also stepped in to question the killing, including International Criminal Court prosecutors who have launched a preliminary probe. Drug agents say they have killed just over 5,500 alleged dealers and users who fought back during arrest, but watchdogs say the true toll is at least four times higher.

Advocates allege the campaign is a war on the urban poor which has had the side effect of unleashing a rush of killings linked to everything from personal disputes to political rivalries. Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo has denied the appointment was an effort to drag Robredo into the morass of the campaign to co-opt her. "Effectively, we're giving her a ladder to the presidency. This is her chance," Panelo said on Tuesday.

Duterte has previously derided Robredo's capability to potentially lead the country, which she would have to do if the president dies or cannot function. But in a turnaround labeled by critics as a trap, Duterte said in a speech last week that the drug situation has "worsened" with the police on the "brink of surrendering". "It's beyond my competence, but maybe she will do better," Duterte told reporters last week.

Several members of Duterte's cabinet said they would work with Robredo in good faith, but not all of them were so welcoming. C'mon Leni, let's try something new. Except legalizing the drug trade, rehabbing drug dealers insteada shootin' 'em", foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin wrote in a tweet. - AFP