Philippines' Duterte absolves police chief over lockdown birthday party

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ASEAN leaders attend a plenary session at a regional summit in Bangkok
ASEAN leaders attend a plenary session at a regional summit in Bangkok

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday cleared his newly appointed police chief of any violation of rules when he celebrated his birthday in May during one of the world's strictest coronavirus lockdowns.

In a national address, Duterte defended police chief Debold Sinas, promoted on Monday Nov. 9 to national police commander from Manila police boss, and noted his appointee's achievements despite a social media stir over perceived special treatment.

Sinas had led anti-drug operations in which thousands of people were killed.

"If he has (committed) any offence, he is pardoned already. I do not see any wrongdoing with moral implications and malice," Duterte said, adding that Sinas was not at fault for receiving a surprise festivity.

Sinas has been under investigation by the justice ministry for celebrating his birthday with fellow officers in May despite coronavirus curbs and at a time police were arresting thousands of people for quarantine violations. He has apologised for "causing anxiety to the public".

It was not immediately clear if Duterte's comments meant those investigations were no longer active. Contacted for comment by Reuters, justice minister Menardo Guevarra said in a text message: "I did not hear what the president said exactly. I need to know the context."

Sinas's appointment to lead the Philippines' 200,000-strong police force was met with activists' concerns of unchecked human rights abuses. Rights group say the police had summarily executed suspects, but police say those suspects had violently resisted arrest.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by David Holmes)