Critics of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday challenged sedition charges brought against Vice President Leni Robredo as well as nearly three dozen opposition members and senior Catholic Church officials over an alleged plot to discredit the leader.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, a Robredo ally and opposition lawmaker who was not charged, called on their minority party allies to stand with the country’s second highest-ranking official, whom Duterte had publicly said he was not backing.
“We urge our fellow lawmakers at the House of Representatives to seriously consider where they stand in the face of the harassment and persecution brought upon our party chairperson,” Pangilinan said. “We must rally behind our party chairperson.”
The vice president has been at odds with Duterte and questioned his war on illegal narcotics that has left more than 6,600 suspected drug dealers and addicts dead. Elected separately from Duterte in 2016, she supported a vote by the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month for a U.N. investigation into those extrajudicial killings.
The charges for sedition and other lesser crimes were filed on Thursday, ahead of Duterte’s annual “state of the nation” address scheduled for next week.
Pangilinan said the Duterte administration was intent on making members of the opposition pay for criticizing his government over the killings and its alleged subservience to Beijing – a reference to the president’s recent statements that he could not do anything to counter the Asian superpower amid a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
One of the 36 people charged, former congressman Gary Alejano, said the action was “clearly political persecution” meant to silence dissenting voices.
“Be that as it may, we will face this laughable charge which is full of lies,” said Alejano, who was part of the opposition coalition who ran but lost in last May’s election.
Among others facing charges are incumbent opposition senators Leila de Lima and Risa Hontiveros, former senators Bam Aquino and Antonio Trillanes, candidates who lost in the May mid-term elections, and members of the influential Catholic Church. The 36 have been charged with sedition, inciting to sedition, libel, harboring a criminal and obstruction of justice.
Earlier in July, Robredo, a lawyer, told members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines not to be cowed and to keep reporting amid a fearful climate.
“We desperately need you to be the most credible voice of truth in our generation, when our basic rights are constantly being threatened, when human lives are being disregarded, when our freedoms are under attack and when disinformation has replaced honest and collaborative conversations,” she said.
“We need you to end the culture of hate, sensationalism and lies and put our foot down and say enough is enough.”
A panel of prosecutors is studying the case, and a preliminary investigation is to be carried out, Philippine justice officials said.
The charges are based on accounts by Peter Joemel Advincula, who had made video clips detailing Duterte’s alleged involvement in crimes, and uploaded them online.
Police discredited Advincula and launched a manhunt for him. Going public, he claimed the campaign was concocted and paid for by the opposition in a bid to discredit the president.
Robredo spokesman Barry Gutierrez said she has not received a copy of the complaint.
“But if this is purely based on the outrageous statement previously given by Mr. Advincula, we can confidently say this is completely baseless and nothing more than plain and simple harassment,” Gutierrez said in a statement.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo called on the public to let the judicial process take its course.
Panelo emphasized that Duterte was not involved in the bringing of the new charges against his critics.
“None at all. Absolutely nothing,” Panelo said. “My attitude there is, it’s about time to know the truth about this video.”
Since taking office, Duterte has gone after his critics. De Lima, a former rights commissioner who had questioned his rights record when he was mayor of southern Davao City, has been in jail while defending herself on what she said were trumped up charges of profiting from the drug trade.
Last year, Duterte also tried to arrest Trillanes on charges of rebellion for an uprising he had been pardoned for in the past. The senator holed himself up in the Senate until charges were dropped. He ended his term this year, but remains a staunch anti-Duterte critic.
On Friday, Trillanes said the new charges were meant to stifle democratic dissent. He alleged that police filed the cases on a whim, knowing that they did not have proper evidence while relying on allegations by a tainted witness.
“The thousands of homicide cases under investigation that are suspected EJK (extrajudicial killings) are not yet being investigated, but this case against the opposition quickly moved,” Trillanes said.
He said investigators “clearly abused and misused the subpoena power recently bestowed on them to single out critics of the Duterte administration.”
Duterte is facing two complaints before International Criminal Court in The Hague. The first was filed by a former policeman and a self-confessed assassin who alleged that Duterte had ordered the killings of criminals and opponents when he served as mayor of Davao city. The second was filed by relatives of eight people killed in the drug war.
On Friday, rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a statement saying the complaint illustrated “how draconian laws such as sedition can be arbitrarily enforced to silence government critics.”
Amnesty called on the court to dismiss the complaint outright because it bore “all the hallmarks of judicial harassment.”
“Coming so soon after the U.N.’s decision to probe the thousands of killings committed in the government’s brutal anti-drugs campaign, the authorities appear to be bringing false charges against known critics at home,” the London-based rights advocacy group said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.