MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine justice minister on Friday urged police to abort a manhunt of dozens of potentially dangerous convicts freed in error, fearing possible violence after the president offered big bounties to kill or capture them.
The release of so many criminals guilty of violent offences under a program to reward good behavior has been a huge embarrassment for President Rodrigo Duterte, a former prosecutor who won an election by promising to stamp out crime.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra wanted police to stand down after the midnight expiry of Duterte's deadline for inmates to turn themselves in, as the number of those who reported to authorities roughly matched the 1,700 serious offenders freed.
"We want to make sure that those remaining are actually people that need to be arrested," Guevarra told news channel ANC.
"We find it prudent to pause for a while, tally the count and make sure those who surrendered are those on the list."
Duterte had offered a "prize" of a million pesos ($19,000) for each of the convicted murderers, rapists and drug offenders released in a corrections bureau blunder, and said he preferred them caught dead rather than alive.
Guevarra tried this week to intervene to ensure the public did not take literally Duterte's expressed desire for the fugitives to be killed.
Duterte has drawn flak for his fierce rhetoric, including calls for the deaths of drug users or alleged criminals, which critics say is inciting vigilantism and spurring police to kill illegally. His office rejects that, saying his words are meant for effect, and should be taken seriously, not literally.
Guevarra would not identify the wanted former inmates, out of concern that people trying to capture dangerous felons could get hurt or might target the wrong people.
More time was needed to verify those who had reported to authorities, he said, adding that they included former criminals who were not under suspicion but who had surrendered for fear of being killed, or because they preferred being in prison.
"Probably they are afraid for their lives because the president said you'd better surrender or you'll be hunted down dead or alive," he said.
"Some may have found it difficult to adjust outside."
(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)