A victim of the Philippines' drugs war with his wife: 19 police officers charged over a separate murder during the campaign will now face lesser charges. - AFP/file
Manila (AFP) - Nineteen Philippine policemen originally charged with murder during President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs have been freed on bail and will be tried for a lesser crime, sparking criticism Monday from rights activists.
The tough-talking Duterte has repeatedly said he will defend police officers involved in the bloody anti-narcotics war, although he has also described the force as "corrupt to the core".
Police Superintendent Marvin Marcos and 18 other officers were originally accused of murdering two people inside their prison cell -- one of them being a city mayor detained on suspicion of drug-dealing.
The officers posted bail Friday after the charge was amended to the lesser one of homicide, said national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.
"This just shows that there's impunity," Amnesty International's local spokesman Wilnor Papa told AFP.
"Vigilantes and police are getting away with it (killings)... this is a classic example that people in power get away with it."
State prosecutors in March had charged the officers with murder over the shooting death of town mayor Rolando Espinosa and his cellmate at a prison on the central island of Leyte.
Duterte had earlier accused Espinosa and his son of being the drug kingpins in the area. The son surrendered after his father was killed.
Authorities said at the time the elder Espinosa's arrest was evidence the drugs problem was prevalent nationwide, justifying the brutal government response.
Marcos and his co-accused said the mayor was killed when he fought back with a gun during a raid on his cell. Other inmates said there was no such firefight.
The accused filed an appeal, arguing that the charges should be downgraded because the killing was not premeditated, and state prosecutors amended the charges.
Duterte has come in for severe criticism from Western governments and human rights groups over the war on drugs because of the lack of due process and the deaths of innocent people.
He has said police who follow his orders in the brutal anti-drugs war should not worry about prosecution.
Before the charges were downgraded in Marcos's case, the president said he was ready to pardon him and the other officers if convicted.
Isidro Lapena, director of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency said 3,116 people had been killed in government operations against illegal drugs in Duterte's first 11 months in office.
Unknown attackers have killed more than 1,800 others, while about 5,700 other violent deaths are under investigation, according to police data as of May.
Many of the victims were poor people from Manila's sprawling slums.