Philippine lawyers alarmed by Duterte moves to jail senator

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The largest lawyers’ group in the Philippines asked the country’s courts on Monday to resist “creeping incursions” on their independence and warned of judicial chaos after the president voided an amnesty for an opposition senator and ordered his arrest.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines expressed alarm over the “audacity to publicly arrest and incarcerate” Sen Antonio Trillanes IV for offenses that were cancelled by a 2011 amnesty approved by President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor and Congress.

Trillanes, who is Duterte’s fiercest critic in Congress, has taken refuge in the Senate for nearly a week to avoid arrest after the president voided the amnesty for having joined unsuccessful coup attempts as a former navy officer. Duterte also asked the Department of Justice and the military to revive criminal proceedings against him, which Trillanes and some legal experts said violates the constitution.

Duterte has been highly sensitive to criticism, especially over his anti-drug crackdown that has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead since he took office in mid-2016. Trillanes has also accused the president of large-scale corruption and involvement in illegal drugs, which Duterte has denied.

Duterte said he was voiding Trillanes’ amnesty because the senator had failed to file a formal amnesty request and acknowledge guilt for involvement in the failed coup attempts. Trillanes has shown news reports and Defence Department documents to deny Duterte’s claims and asked the Supreme Court to declare Duterte’s moves illegal.

Supporters of Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes hold a rally in front of the Senate building in Manila. – AFP

Despite the legal questions, the Department of Justice has asked two courts to issue warrants for the senator’s arrest and resume criminal proceedings against him.

The lawyers’ group said the move against Trillanes “runs roughshod over the constitutional guarantee against double jeopardy,” or holding a person to answer twice for the same offense. It said the judiciary could be subjected to an “anomalous situation” in which one court could uphold the amnesty and another rule to void it.

“The chaos that may result” from the government moves against Trillanes “undermines our systems that make the orderly administration of justice possible,” the group said in a statement.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque asked the lawyers’ group to “stop too much talk” and bring the issues to a court and not the media.

Although Duterte could order the military to arrest Trillanes to have him face a military court of inquiry into his past coup involvement, the president has said he decided to wait for civilian courts to rule whether the senator can be arrested to face trial.

Trillanes, however, has declined to believe him and refused to leave the Senate, where he has held daily news conferences.

Duterte has also accused Trillanes, without offering evidence, of plotting with other opposition politicians, including the Liberal Party and leftist groups, to oust him by next month. Trillanes and opposition groups have dismissed the claim as a lie and asked him to focus instead on addressing poverty, inflation, rice shortages, a decline in the value of the peso currency and traffic jams.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that communist guerrillas have had plans to oust Duterte, but that he is not aware “if other groups would ride on it. We do not know.”