A Philippine court dismissed sedition charges Thursday against a teacher accused of offering U.S. $1 million to anyone who would kill President Rodrigo Duterte, saying the suspect had a right to free speech although his alleged threat was reprehensible.
Ronnel Mas, 25, was “unlawfully arrested,” Judge Richard Paradeza of the Olongapo City Trial Court, north of Manila, ruled in throwing out the charges that stemmed from a message posted on Twitter, in which a bounty of 50 million Philippine pesos was allegedly put on Duterte’s head.
“The author of the said post should be made liable and punished to the fullest extent of the law,” the judge said in his ruling. “However, no matter how contemptible or reprehensible the post is, the person or persons suspected to be responsible [for] the posting of the subject provocative text should be afforded their constitutional rights.”
Agents with the Philippine justice department arrested Mas from his residence in Santa Cruz, a town in northwestern Zambales province on May 11 after he allegedly tweeted a message, which said “I will give a 50 million peso reward to whoever will kill Duterte.”
A criminal complaint was filed against Mas on charges of inciting sedition, which is punishable by up to six years in prison, and of violating the country’s cybercrimes law.
The main pieces of evidence used against him were his confession while under custody and a statement given by Julius Hallado, a fellow teacher, who said he was not sure if Mas owned the Twitter account on which the alleged threat was posted.
Mas later begged for forgiveness and said he had written the offensive message to get attention. He said the post was not intentional.
“Even if the confession is gospel truth, if it was made without the assistance of counsel, it is inadmissible in evidence regardless of the absence of coercion or even if it had been voluntarily given,” the court ruled Thursday.
“[M]ere intelligence information that the suspect committed the crime will not suffice,” the court added.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Mas’ apology was welcome, but it would not spare him from potential prosecution.
Duterte’s government, meanwhile, has been widely perceived as going after its critics and clamping down on free speech and press freedom. It shut down the country’s leading broadcaster, ABS-CBN Corp., after the network could not secure a congressional franchise to renew its license, while lawmakers failed to deliberate on the permit in a timely manner.
On June 15, Maria Ressa, a top Philippine journalist and chief editor of the Rappler news website, was convicted by a Manila court for libel, in what press and rights groups here said was a ruling aimed at silencing critics of the Duterte administration.
Aie Balagtas See contributed to this report from Manila.