Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, second left, escorts Vice President Leni Robredo, right, who visited him at the Philippine Senate Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 in suburban Pasay city, south of Manila, Philippines. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

(New York) – Philippine authorities should drop cases for inciting sedition and other offenses against opposition politicians, religious leaders, and human rights advocates, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 18, 2019, the Philippine National Police filed a complaint alleging incitement to sedition, libel, cyber libel, and obstruction of justice against Vice President Leni Robredo and 35 other people. Robredo was elected independently of President Rodrigo Duterte and leads the Liberal Party, the party of former president Benigno Aquino III.

Concerned governments and donors should press the Duterte administration to end its persecution of critics of its murderous “war on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The preposterous complaint against the vice president and the others is a transparent attempt to harass and silence critics of President Duterte’s bloody ‘drug war,’” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Threatening criminal charges against the vice president, outspoken bishops, and rights lawyers suggests that Duterte’s egregious human rights record is catching up with him.”

Under Article 142 of the Philippines penal code, a conviction for incitement to sedition carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

The complaint was brought against four Catholic bishops and three priests who have become increasingly critical of the Duterte administration, and a former education secretary and Lasallian brother, Armin Luistro. Others named were Chel Diokno, the president of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), and a human rights lawyer and FLAG official, Theodore Te. FLAG has assisted families of victims of “drug war” killings. Other members and officials of the Liberal Party were named, including Senators Risa Hontiveros and Leila de Lima, and the party’s full senatorial slate in the May elections.

Police filed the complaint after Peter Joemel Advincula, an admitted drug dealer, alleged that Robredo and others were plotting Duterte’s ouster. In a video that Advincula claims to have filmed as part of the plot, a hooded man is shown accusing Duterte, his family, and close associates of links to the illicit drug trade. The Duterte administration had earlier denounced the allegation, calling Advincula’s statement unreliable.

The complaint accused the 36 people of “spread[ing] lies against the President, his family, and close associates, making them to appear as illegal drug trade protectors and how they earned staggering amounts of money.”

The Duterte administration has previously targeted political opposition figures and critics of the “drug war,” Human Rights Watch said. In February 2017, it accused Senator de Lima of involvement in the drug trade. The accusation was based entirely on the testimony of convicted drug dealers that Human Rights Watch believes are baseless but later served as the grounds for her arrest and continued police detention. The government has likewise filed sedition charges against a former senator and Duterte critic, Antonio Trillanes IV, one of those named in the recent complaint.

The government has brought criminal charges against activists critical of the “drug war.” It has also carried out a campaign in mainstream media and social media to harass, vilify, and intimidate human rights defenders, clergy, and journalists, most notably the popular news website Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa. It has accused many of these people of involvement with the communist insurgency.

Criticism of the administration centers on the “drug war” killings that began soon after Duterte became president in June 2016. Since then, police and police-backed gunmen have summarily executed thousands of alleged drug dealers and users in mainly poor urban communities across the Philippines. The police have said they have killed more than 6,600 people who “fought back” in the anti-drug campaign, while estimates by domestic rights groups put the number executed at more than 27,000.

In response to the situation, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on July 11, calling on the UN human rights office to present a comprehensive report on human rights in the Philippines in June 2020.

“The sedition complaint looks like little more than a kneejerk reaction to the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on the Philippines,” Adams said. “Friends of the Philippines should not stay silent when the administration retaliates against those promoting respect for human rights in the country.”