Don’t take our leader too literally, aides to the foul-mouthed, fiery-tempered and highly popular Philippine president have sometimes advised.
That did not stop many people worldwide from believing Rodrigo Duterte’s claim this week that he once killed a man by throwing him from a helicopter.
“If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out,” he warned government officials during a televised speech that was later posted on the president’s video feed. “I have done this before,” he said of an incident involving a man suspected of rape and murder.
The admission could attract further calls for the impeachment of a president under fire for waging a brutal war on drugs in which more than 6,000 suspects have been killed.
His spokesman played down the claim. “Let’s just say ‘urban legend’,” Ernesto Abella told reporters.
Yesterday Mr Duterte denied the whole affair. “We had no helicopter. We don’t use that,” he told CNN. He poked fun at media scrutiny of his every word. “I am playing you — I am really like that. Your team knows I really want to say jokes,” he said.
The claim was believable as he boasted a few weeks ago that he had killed during his 22 years as mayor of Davao City, then highly dangerous, and sometimes rode a motorcycle looking for “encounters to kill”. Vitaliano Aguirre II, the justice secretary, said this week that the president was prone to exaggeration and hyperbole when discussing his own killing of criminals.
Mr Duterte apologised for “collateral damage”, such as children caught in the crossfire, but vowed to continue the war on drugs. “Until the last pusher is out of the street, until the last drug lord is killed, this campaign will continue until the very last day of my term,” he told ABS-CBN News.
Criticism of his bloody approach has drawn a stream of insults, and Mr Duterte has claimed that criticism by the US persuaded him to switch allegiance to Beijing, despite disputes with China over the sovereignty of islets in the South China Sea.
When the United Nations’ top human rights envoy called for an investigation into the president’s claims that he killed people, Mr Duterte called him an “idiot” and a “son of a bitch” who should go back to school.
Although he had previously promised to clean up his act, Mr Duterte said yesterday that he would not bow to pressure to stop swearing. “God gave me this mouth. If you have anything against my mouth go to God and complain,” he told an interviewer.
His mouth is likely to get him into trouble again after another outburst, this time directed at US diplomacy. Responding to media reports of an alleged US plot to destabilise his country, he described American ambassadors as spies.
In a television interview broadcast yesterday Mr Duterte said that most ambassadors were in cahoots with the CIA, which had a record of meddling in other countries’ affairs.
“Most of the ambassadors of the United States, but not all, are not really professional ambassadors. At the same time they are spying, they are connected with the CIA,” he said. “There are ambassadors of the US, their forte is to undermine governments.”
Mr Duterte is known to despise Philip Goldberg, who ended his three-year term in Manila last month, and has previously called him a “gay son of a bitch”. He referred to him in three successive live television interviews yesterday, calling him Washington’s “superstar” with a record of undermining governments.