Malacañang, White House release conflicting statements on human rights discussion

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 13) — Did they or didn’t they?

The touchy issue of human rights in the Philippines was not brought up in bilateral talks with the United States, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Monday.

“The issue of human rights did not arise -- it was not brought up. It was President Duterte who discussed with U.S. President Trump the drug menace in the Philippines. And the U.S. President appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter,” Roque told reporters in a press briefing after the two leaders met.

But the White House, according to CNN, said the human rights issue was briefly discussed.

"The conversation focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade. Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines' fight against illegal drugs," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

President Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump had their meeting at the Philippine International Convention Center. Trump praised the Philippines’ handlïng of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

Roque said Trump seemed to understand the Philippines’ drug problem. He previously said the two leaders share a 'similar stance' on the issue.

“He (Trump)  was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we face on drugs,” the spokesman said.

READ: Duterte's drug war won't spark tension with Trump – Roque

He added that the “frank” conversation between the two leaders lasted 40 minutes, and claimed the Philippines had formed very close ties with its former colonizer.

“It was Trump who specifically said he has always been a friend of the Duterte administration, unlike the previous administrations of the United States. But he stressed that he can be counted upon as a friend of the Duterte administration,” Roque said.

The administration’s drug war has drawn flak for the spate of killings linked to the effort. Local and international human rights groups cite some 13,000 drug related deaths, but government data count only  3,967 as of October 2017.

In May, two U.S. senators filed a bill restricting the export of weapons to the Philippine National Police (PNP), which was then leading Duterte’s illegal drug campaign. The measure also called for the support of human rights and civil organizations in the Philippines, and reporting on the  sources of narcotics entering the country.

READ: U.S. Senators file bill to block arms export to PH

Reports of human rights violations committed by the police forced Duterte to transfer anti-illegal drug operations to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

READ: Duterte gives PDEA lead role in drug war

While Duterte and Trump skipped discussions on human rights concerns, experts from the United Nations had called on ASEAN leaders to discuss drug-related killings in the region.

CNN Philippines’ Correspondent Ina Andolong contributed to this report.