MANILA — Imagine this: You are a lawyer who has just been named presidential spokesman. It is your fourth day on the job. The boss admits to murder.
Last month, not a week into his role as press secretary for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Harry Roque, a human rights lawyer-turned-congressman, found himself in that particular pinch.
On the sidelines of a summit in Vietnam, on the eve of a visit from President Trump, Duterte got to talking about that time, when he was 16, that he stabbed a man to death over an exchange of dirty looks.
He then asked the crowd to consider what he was capable of today, as president. "I won't let you off the hook" if you hurt Filipinos, he warned. "Never mind about the human rights advocates."
Asked to respond, Roque told the press: "I think it was in jest."
When a president often brags about his penchant for violence, when he urges police to kill drug suspects — and they do — it can be hard to tell boastful fiction from bloody fact.
But if Roque is troubled by the task of interpreting and defending Duterte, he does not show it.
In his first month and a half on the job, he's proven an adept handler, talking cheerful, lawyerly circles around murder confessions, political scandals and warnings from the International Criminal Court.
When Roque was tapped by Duterte for the job in October, he was skeptical, he said then, but saw it as an opportunity to shape policy.
"I considered the position with the specific purpose of getting an audience with the president to address key human rights issues in the Philippines. As a member of congress my voice is limited," he said in a statement issued Oct. 28.
"By accepting this position, I am not condoning the violence surrounding the government's anti-drug campaign, nor do I intend to further the same," it read.
But in an interview with The Washington Post in November, he danced around the drug war, denying that Duterte was in any way responsible for his own campaigns. His refrain: “There is no evidence.”
It is a spectacular turnaround for a man who was once one of Philippine civil society’s bright lights — and, critics say, a boost for Duterte’s purge.
Denying the ‘death squad’
When you meet Roque, it’s impossible not to wonder, “How did we get here?”
Based on his résumé alone, he seems far more likely to be calling for the International Criminal Court to investigate Duterte for crimes against humanity than urging it to back off.
Roque, 51, was raised in the Philippines and educated at the University of Michigan. He was drawn back to Manila by the 1986 People Power revolution that toppled former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. “I couldn’t bear the fact that I was not at home,” he said.
He decided to become a lawyer, enrolling at the University of the Philippines and then the London School of Economics, where he studied international law. He went on to build a successful practice focused on trade.
Roque credits a squabble with former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — and a sign from God himself — with his switch to human rights work. After he crossed Arroyo in the press, his clients disappeared, he said.
“By that time I really had big money already. I had a house, I had flashy cars. I didn’t need anything else, so I said, ‘Well, this must be the reason why He gave us everything already so we can devote our lawyerly skills toward something else.’ ”
Over the years, he's taken on some of the country's biggest cases, including representing victims of the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, in which 58 people, including 32 journalists, were murdered.
His longtime colleagues remain focused on protecting the free press and promoting human rights. Most recently, they've taken up the defense of drug war victims.
It was the defense of a journalist that led Roque to Duterte. In 2007, a libel case took him to Davao, where Duterte was then a mayor rumored to be running a “Death Squad.”
Roque returned to Davao to train lawyers and activists working there. “Of course, there was a reason we held [trainings] there: because of the Davao Death Squad,” he said.
But despite his work there, a vast body of reporting and research, and Duterte's own confession — "I am the death squad? True," he once said — Roque dismissed the notion that Duterte is linked to the squad, or indeed, to any deaths.
“I couldn’t say he wasn’t involved, but I found no evidence.”
Defending the drug war
Roque has found a new calling making that case on a national scale.
Yes, Duterte has called for killing, Roque said, but that alone is not proof of incitement. “Unless there is clear and present danger, it is protected speech.”
He went on to blame just about everyone else for what’s happened since Duterte took office, including Filipino lawyers for failing to file cases, and the public for tolerating all the death.
Roque said Filipinos support killing drug suspects because the legal system does not work. “There is no alternative to the rule of law, but what can you do? The justice system in the Philippines has so many pitfalls, no?”
He is right that millions of Filipinos support Duterte and that many see the drug war as necessary, even just. But surveys show Filipinos are increasingly wary of police violence. And there is certainly flack from within the Philippines.
To many journalists, lawyers and activists, Roque’s defection — and they see it as a defection — is a major hit.
Ellen Tordesillas, a journalist whom Roque has represented, said she counts him as a friend, but found his decision to back Duterte “puzzling and disappointing.”
For years, she saw him as a “freedom fighter,” she said. Now, he is using that experience to sell the war. “He is helping Duterte a lot,” she said.
Why? Ambition. “I think that being spokesperson will serve his higher objective to be a senator,” she said.
Roque seems to have wagered that he will change Duterte, not the other way around. He said he talks to him about the rule of law — and that the president listens.
“That’s why I’m with him. If there’s anyone who I think can fix the problem, it’s him,” he said.
“Have you seen the kind of political will he has? Oh, my God.”
Kimberly dela Cruz contributed to this report.