Philippine Congress body backs bid to impeach chief justice

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine House of Representatives committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday to proceed with a case to impeach the Supreme Court chief justice, who has vowed to fight the ouster move.

The justice committee voted 38-2 to rule there was “probable cause” to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno based on 27 alleged acts, which a lawyer claimed amounted to “culpable violations” of the constitution, corruption, breach of public trust and other serious crimes. Six of Sereno’s fellow justices testified against her in the hearings that started in September, exposing rifts in the high court.

The entire 292-member House of Representatives is to vote whether to impeach Sereno in a few months. The House is dominated by allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has called for her removal. If she is impeached, the Senate will form itself into an impeachment court.

“The remedy of impeachment was given to us by our constitution to ease the nation of undeserving officials. The power is now in our hands,” committee chairman Rep. Reynaldo Umali said shortly before the televised voting.

Sereno has taken leave from the court and has denied any wrongdoing.

“All kinds of lies, threats, harassment, and bullying have been thrown my way but I will not yield,” Sereno said in a speech before local judges in Manila.

In another speech Wednesday, she urged Filipinos to stand up to authoritarianism and threats to human rights, in an indirect criticism of Duterte.

Solicitor General Jose Calida separately filed a petition Monday before the Supreme Court questioning Sereno’s eligibility for her job for allegedly failing to file the required annual statement of assets and liabilities in the past. That allegation, which Sereno has denied, is also included in the impeachment complaint in the House.

The government move has been seen by critics and even Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, a key Duterte ally, as possibly a breach of the constitution, which states that top officials including Sereno can only be removed through impeachment.

Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque Jr., welcomed the House committee ruling, saying it was proof that a constitutional safeguard that holds the highest officials to account was working.

But an opposition lawmaker, Rep. Tom Villarin, warned that the House vote on the impeachment case against Sereno, which was made as the world marked International Women’s Day, could further erode the credibility of a government already facing serious accusations of massive human rights violations.

“This move will create a backlash against the Duterte administration for bringing to trial a chief justice who stood up against a bloody war on drugs, violations of the rule of law, and misogyny,” Villarin said. “With her impending impeachment trial in the Senate, the public will now know how the administration used power to crucify those who stand for truth.”

Last year, Duterte said he wanted Sereno and a top anti-graft prosecutor impeached and accused them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.

International rights groups and local critics have accused Duterte of drifting toward authoritarianism after declaring martial law in the south amid a major attack by pro-Islamic State group militants last year. He has overseen a drug war marked by thousands of killings of mostly poor suspects.

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