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Solicitor General Jose Calida talks to Lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) as the Supreme Court starts the oral arguments on the consolidated petitions to declare Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war unconstitutional, in Manila, Philippines November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco(reuters_tickers)
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing arguments in a petition to declare President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs, denounced by rights groups across the world, as unconstitutional.
More than 3,900 Filipinos have been killed in what the police called self-defence after armed drugs suspects resisted arrest in the 16 month-long campaign. Critics say executions are taking place, with zero accountability, allegations the police reject.
In a petition filed last month, lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) argued the anti-drug campaign is unconstitutional because it allows police to kill suspects in the guise of "neutralising" them during raids and sting operations.
"That could be subject to misinterpretation by the policeman on the ground," Chel Diokno of FLAG told the court, arguing that the term "neutralise" could mean "kill".
The government chief lawyer, Jose Calida, has said there was never an instruction to kill drug suspects, seeking to dismiss the petition for being "marred by speculation, unfounded information and unsubstantiated arguments".
A day before FLAG lawyers filed the petition, Duterte issued an order removing the police from the anti-drugs campaign, putting the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), a small and undermanned agency, in charge.
Dozens of drug offenders have been arrested in the month since the PDEA took over and there have been fewer deaths reported, but police said there had been a rise in drug-related crimes.
Duterte said over the weekend he would call police back to the drugs war if drug use and crime rose again.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been criticised at home for neglecting rights issues in dealings abroad, praised Duterte in May for doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem".
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)