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Philippine Presidential Candidate Criticized For Rape 'Joke'

Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte answers questions from reporters at the University of the Philippines in suburban Quezon City, north of Manila, on Feb. 18.
Aaron Favila
Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte answers questions from reporters at the University of the Philippines in suburban Quezon City, north of Manila, on Feb. 18.

Rodrigo Duterte, a presidential candidate in the Philippines, is notoriously blunt, even crude. But critics say he crossed a line when he apparently joked about a rape and murder in 1989, commenting that the victim was beautiful and as mayor he "should have been first" when men took turns raping her.

Duterte has said it was a comment made in anger, not in jest. He did not apologize.

Duterte is an outsize political figure in Davao City, where he has served seven terms as mayor, as well as stints as vice mayor and congressional representative. When term limits kicked him out of office, his daughter took over the mayorship; now Duterte is back in office.

And he's running for president, building his campaign on his reputation for cracking down on crime. During the many years he spent running Davao City, the crime rate there — once the "murder capital" of the Philippines — dropped.

But human rights groups have accused Duterte of permitting or encouraging death squads to conduct extrajudicial killings of hundreds of perceived petty criminals.

Duterte has variously denied and confirmed ordering execution-style street killings, but he has consistently said crime should be punished with death. "If you want a mayor that doesn't kill criminals, look for another mayor," he told a reporter in the early 2000s. As for teenagers resisting police, he said, "I will not hesitate to kill them. I don't care about minors."

He's also claimed to have personally killed criminals, including burning their bodies.

Other controversial statements include cursing out the pope for causing traffic and self-identifying as a womanizer with two wives and two mistresses before discussing his sexual performance.

Duterte has been compared to Donald Trump for his political success, despite having violated political norms — even in the Philippines, a country with a fairly raucous political environment.

His latest comment has received international attention — from The Washington Post, Time and the BBC.

The remark was made during a campaign rally last week, and caught on video. Duterte was discussing an incident in 1989 when 16 prisoners in Davao City took hostages, including Australian lay Minister Jacqueline Hamill. Here's the video, with an excerpt of the translation from the Rappler news service. The comment comes near the end of the clip.

"I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that's one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. [Audience laughter.] What a waste."

Duterte later refused to apologize for his statement, which he described as "gutter language." The Associated Press reports that he did apologize for the bloody end to the hostage crisis — all the prisoners and five of the hostages, including Hamill, died.

He said his statement was not making fun of rape, but he did not retract it or apologize for it.

"It was said in anger; I was not joking," he said by way of clarification, according to the AP. "I said, 'This one, she's beautiful, like an actress, son of a bitch they beat me to her. Kill them all.' "

Other presidential candidates — including the only female candidate, Grace Poe — have spoken out strongly against the remark.

The Gabriela Women's Party, a women's rights advocacy group in the Philippines, said in a statement on Facebook, "Rape, or any form of sexual abuse is not a joke nor something to be trivialized in a joke, especially by a public official and most especially by those aspiring for the highest post in the land." The Australian ambassador also condemned the remark.

But while there has been no shortage of criticism, some have defended Duterte, saying the comment was a bad joke — but just a joke.

His running mate pointed to Duterte's record on women's rights. (In Davao City, Duterte promoted contraception, created a domestic violence response desk and established of a unit dedicated to the rights of women and children.)

And vice presidential candidate Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano said Duterte banned the wearing of bathing suits in beauty pageants.

"He's an advocate for women," Cayetano said.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.