(UPDATE 3 – 2:59 a.m.) MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte has a new spokesperson: Kabayan party-list Representative Harry Roque.
In an interview with dzMM radio past midnight, Oct. 28, Roque said the chief executive had “just” announced his decision to make him presidential spokesperson with a Cabinet rank of secretary, replacing Undersecretary Ernesto Abella, a longtime Duterte supporter and former evangelist and executive in an agribusiness firm based in Davao.
Duterte announced that Roque would be his new spokesman during the latter’s birthday party in Davao City, which was also attended by Roque’s wife, former TV reporter Mylah Reyes-Roque, and the President’s common-law wife, Cielito “Honeylet” Avanceña.
Roque said he would start his new job on November 6 after accompanying Duterte in his working visit to Japan from October 29 to 31 and thus would need to give up his post as party-list lawmaker soon. This confirmed earlier reports that the 51-year-old Roque would soon work in Malacañang.
Roque, a lawyer, used to head the Center for International Law, Philippines (CenterLaw). The advocacy group works for the recognition and application of international law norms, specifically those relating to human rights, humanitarian law, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.
CenterLaw has been extending legal assistance to the family members and neighbors of persons killed in the government’s anti-drug operations in San Andres Bukid, Manila.
Roque: Duterte mentioned work in Palace different from what’s being done in church
Roque on Saturday said he had never expected that “this opportunity” of becoming the spokesman of the highest leader of the land would come.
Roque was confident he could be an effective spokesperson of Duterte because he “understands” what the President wanted.
Duterte did not fully explain the reason why he had decided to replace Abella, according to Roque. But he said the President mentioned that Abella was really a pastor and that the work in the Palace isn’t like what is being done in the church and that Malacañang needed someone who understands what the chief executive means when he issues statements and is also good at political angling.
“Wala naman pong binanggit si Presidente kanina. Ang sabi lang niya ay si Secretary Abella ay talaga pong pastor. Hindi naman daw po ito simbahan, ang kailangan daw ay ‘yong naiintindihan ang kanyang ibig sabihin at nakaka-anggulo rin, ‘yon po ang sabi niya,” Roque said.
Int’l network to Roque: Reconsider offer
In an Oct. 26 open letter, the Bertha Justice Network, consisting of 16 groups, including CenterLaw, “strongly” urged Roque “to reconsider” the offer to become Duterte’s spokesperson.
“Many of us, your former colleagues, remember you as a fierce advocate for human rights,” the international network said.
“As you know, better than we do, the Philippines has seen extrajudicial killings of unprecedented scale since President Duterte took office…,” noting that the “tally stood at more than 7,000 killings of suspected drugs users and dealers by January of this year,” based on data from the Philippine National Police.
“Responsibility for more than 2,500 of these killings was claimed by police. In many other cases, there is evidence of police collusion with vigilante killers. The perpetrators remain in almost complete impunity,” it said.
The network claimed that the President “has actively encouraged and condoned these human rights violations that we assess to constitute crimes against humanity.”
It also said that it “appreciate(d)” Roque and the network’s “collaboration and the important work that CenterLaw has been conducting as a member” of Bertha Justice.
“This includes the important cases of Efren Morillo and others and of citizens of San Andres Bukid before the Philippine Supreme Court that address the extrajudicial killings committed by police under President Duterte.”
The other members of the network are:
-Bureau des Avocats International, Haiti
-Center for Constitutional Rights, USA
-Center for Applied Legal Studies, South Africa
-Colectivo de Abogados “Jose Alvear Restrepo”
-EarthRights International USA, Peru, Thailand, and Myanmar
-Equal Education Law Centre, South Africa
-European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Germany
-Foundation for Fundamental Rights Pakistan
-Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, USA
-Legal Resources Centre, South Africa
-Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Occupied Palestinian State
-Proyecto de Derechos Economicos, Sociales y Culturales, A.C., Mexico
-Reprieve, United Kingdom
-Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa