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UN Envoy: Judicial Independence under Threat in Philippines

Dennis Jay Santos and Jeoffrey Maitem
Davao and Cotabato, Philippines
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Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno meets with supporters in front of the Supreme Court compound in northern Baguio City, April 10, 2018.
Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno meets with supporters in front of the Supreme Court compound in northern Baguio City, April 10, 2018.
Karl Romano/BenarNews

A U.N. expert hit out at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday by saying that the recent removal of the country’s Supreme Court chief justice who had criticized his war on drugs negatively affected the independence of the judicial branch.

Diego García-Sayán, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said Duterte had publicly threatened Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno days before her peers voted to oust her last month.

The threats allegedly made by Duterte against Sereno “constitute a vicious attack on the independence of the judiciary,” the U.N. official said.

Sereno, 57, the first woman to hold the top post of the judiciary, was removed over questions about her integrity. The justices ruled on a petition filed by the country’s solicitor general, who had sought her disqualification on charges that she had failed to publicly disclose her true net worth.

Sereno had denied the charges and said that her removal from the bench of the Supreme Court was politically motivated, after she had voiced opposition to Duterte’s drug war that has killed thousands. The president denied having a hand in her ouster, even though he supported earlier moves in Congress to impeach her.

“The decision of the Supreme Court was issued two days after the president of the Philippines publicly threatened the chief justice by saying that she was his enemy and that she should be removed from her job or resign,” García-Sayán said in statement Friday.

“The unprecedented decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines seems directly related to the threats made against the chief justice in relation to her professional activities in defense of the independence of the judiciary,” he said.

Duterte’s tirades could be considered direct intimidation that ultimately had a chilling effect on the other justices, the U.N. official said, adding he sent a letter to the Philippine government expressing his concern and asking permission to investigate the matter.

García-Sayán, who is in Manila on official trip, also sided and defended Sereno from the president’s personal criticism. Duterte had called her “ignorant,” “dumb” and a “coward.”

“The use of such derogatory language against the highest-ranking magistrate in the country sends a clear message to all judges of the Philippines: in the so called ‘war on drugs,’ you’re either with me or against me,” the U.N. expert said.

The court’s decision to remove Sereno from the bench came ahead of an impeachment vote against her by the Duterte-controlled House of Representatives on corruption allegations filed by a lawyer with known ties to the politicians close to the president. The House still had to vote in the plenary, but decided to wait out the results of the Supreme Court vote.

Sereno was the first Chief Justice to be removed through a vote by her fellow justices. The late Renato Corona, a former chief justice, was impeached on similar corruption charges.

Since Duterte took office two years ago, police said they killed about 4,100 drug suspects who fought back during arrest, but rights groups alleged that the actual number was three times higher when taking into account killings by pro-police vigilantes.

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