Philippine lawmakers attack rights commission, chief justice

MANILA (AFP) – Philippine lawmakers have moved to cut the budget of the nation’s human rights commission to $20 and impeach the Supreme Court chief justice in what critics yesterday labelled part of a slide towards dictatorship under President Rodrigo Duterte.

The twin votes in the House of Representatives added to a growing climate of fear that Duterte is determined to silence anyone critical of his war on drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives and led rights groups to warn of a crime against humanity.

Duterte directly drew a link between Tuesday night’s vote to cut the Commission on Human Rights’ annual budget from 678 million pesos ($1.3 million) to 1,000 pesos and its investigations of the drug war killings and related criticism by its chairman.

“He had it coming,” Duterte told reporters late Tuesday, referring to commission chairman Jose Gascon.

“They only gave him 1,000 pesos (about $20) because Congress is angry.”

Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Roland dela Rosa (L) and Commission on Human Rights Commissioner Chito Gascon (R) taking oaths at the start of a senate inquiry into a spate of extrajudicial killings in Manila in this August 22, 2016 file photo. Philippine lawmakers have moved to cut the annual budget of the nation’s human rights commission to just US$20 and sack the Supreme Court chief justice in what critics warned yesterday was part a slide towards dictatorship under President Rodrigo Duterte. – AFP

The commission is one of several independent government bodies set up by the constitution to check the power of the executive branch, which controls the country’s police and military forces.

The Supreme Court is meant to be another safeguard.

Duterte’s allies in the lower house’s justice committee yesterday also voted to impeach its chief justice after determining corruption allegations against her had substance.

The chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, has been another critic of the drug war.

She wrote Duterte a letter last year expressing concern over him publicly naming seven judges as being involved in the drug trade, warning it made them vulnerable to being killed.

Duterte responded by threatening to declare martial law if Sereno continued to interfere in his drug war.

Should the entire House endorse the justice committee’s findings against Sereno, the Senate would convene as an impeachment court.

The Senate still has to review and endorse the vote to slash the rights commission’s budget.

The Senate is also dominated by Duterte allies, but it has proved more independent than the lower house and it could still over-rule the moves against the rights commission and Sereno.

Nevertheless, critics warned of authoritarian rule under Duterte — a self-described socialist who has repeatedly praised late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This leads us on a direct path to dictatorship,” Senator Francis Pangilinan, leader of the Liberal Party, the country’s main opposition group, said in response to Tuesday’s vote.

Teodoro Casino, a former House member representing the left wing Bayan Muna party, expressed similar sentiments when commenting on the move against Sereno.