The Philippine government told a group of U.S. senators Monday to not meddle in its affairs after they called on Filipino authorities to release a lawmaker from jail who has been highly critical of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The bipartisan group of American senators last week condemned human rights abuses in the country, claiming Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima was in custody for allegedly questioning Duterte’s war on drugs.
They also criticized the Philippine government for bearing down on journalist Maria Ressa, who is facing tax evasion and other charges. Her online news site, Rappler, has reported critically on the Duterte administration, including the drug war.
The U.S. lawmakers should focus their efforts in solving their own country’s problems instead of questioning the policies of a sovereign nation, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
“Their resolution is an unwelcome intrusion to the country’s domestic legal processes and an outrageous interference with our nation’s sovereignty as the subject cases are now being heard by our local courts,” Panelo said in a statement.
“No government official of any foreign country has the authority or right to dictate how we address the commission of crimes,” he said, adding that the U.S. senators had relied on “false narratives” by unnamed biased new agencies about the Duterte administration.
Panelo said Manila was not under “the dominion of the United States of America or any of its high-ranking officials,” and emphasized that the cases against de Lima and Ressa were being handled by the courts.
“Sen. de Lima is no prisoner of conscience, rather a prisoner of no conscience or a prisoner of her own folly,” he said.
De Lima has been jailed for two years on what she said were trumped up charges that she had profited from the drug trade. Rights groups claim the charges against her are baseless and that she is in jail because she aggressively questioned Duterte’s rights records.
Ressa, meanwhile, has been jailed twice, for alleged tax evasion and violating the country’s anti-dummy law that prohibits foreign ownership of a mass media company.
Last week, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Marco Rubio of Florida, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, and Chris Coons of Delaware filed a resolution that condemned human rights abuses in the Philippines.
They also denounced what they claimed was a crackdown on “human rights defenders and political leaders who exercise their rights to freedom of expression” amid Duterte’s war on drugs.
“Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines have been a stain on the country’s human rights record. But rather than working with lawmakers, journalists and civil society in the Philippines to hold perpetrators for these crimes accountable, the Duterte government is turning the law against the very voices promoting the rights of the Philippine people,” Markey said in statement.
While the Philippines is a close ally, Markey said the U.S. lawmakers in his group were seeking an immediate improvement in the Duterte regime’s behavior. The senators charged that Manila had weaponized the rule of law against de Lima and Ressa.
More than 5,000 suspected drug addicts and dealers have been killed since Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, alarming rights groups and opposition leaders. Rights groups have said that the figure could be as high as 12,000 if killings by vigilantes are included.
Duterte had vowed to end the nation’s drug scourge in six months, but has since said he underestimated the problem and the police efforts would continue until his six-year term ended in 2022.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Manila contributed to this report.