Ouster of Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice signals democratic decay, ASEAN lawmakers warn

General Press Releases Wednesday May 16, 2018 14:16
Bangkok--16 May--ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia expressed alarm today over the 11 May removal of Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, stressing that the decision threatens the rule of law and democracy in the Philippines.

"The removal of the Chief Justice is another deeply worrying signal of the decay of democracy in a country once committed to upholding it," said Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). "The Supreme Court's decision undermines the critical separation of powers provided for by the Philippine Constitution and further consolidates President Duterte's control over all three branches of government."

According to the Philippine Constitution, Supreme Court justices can only be removed through an impeachment process by the legislative branch. Despite this requirement, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition filed on 5 March by Solicitor General Jose Calida, an appointee of President Rodrigo Duterte, seeking for its Chief Justice's ouster on grounds that she "failed to show that she is a person of proven integrity." On 11 May, the Court voted 8-6 to remove Sereno as Chief Justice.

"The removal of a member of the Supreme Court in this manner is a clear abuse of the legal system, and a sign of the Court's own willingness to serve as a tool of the executive," Santiago said.

Sereno had been outspoken in her criticism of a number of President Duterte's policies and actions, including his brutal "war on drugs" and extension of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao. In April, Duterte called Sereno an "enemy" and indicated that he would expedite her removal from the Supreme Court.

"Chief Justice Sereno's ouster follows her outspoken criticism of President Duterte's policies. His push for her removal represents a violation of the principle of separation of powers, eroding crucial checks on the executive. As such, it poses a serious threat to the rule of law and the Philippines' democratic future," Santiago said.

Sereno joins a growing list of individuals who have been targeted for their efforts to promote accountability and protect human rights in the Philippines, APHR said. Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has gone after parliamentarians, civil society leaders, and media organizations. One outspoken critic and lawmaker, Senator Leila de Lima, has been in pre-trial detention for over a year.

"Too many human rights defenders have been targeted by this administration for their relentless push for accountability. It's time that the government ceases this persecution and works to uphold basic rights and the rule of law," Santiago said.

APHR highlighted additional concerns over an electoral protest currently being heard by the Supreme Court, which could pave the way for the replacement of current Vice President Leni Robredo, another vocal critic of many of the President's policies.

Sereno is now expected to file a motion for reconsideration to review the earlier ouster ruling.

"We urge the Court to carefully review Sereno's upcoming motion and ensure that due process and the rule of law are upheld. If the Philippines is to avoid the complete trampling of democracy, it will need an independent judiciary that can dispense justice without fear or favor," Santiago concluded.

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