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Stand up against authoritarianism, Philippines justice chief urges people

Maria Lourdes Sereno is facing two attempts to remove her from the role.

The Philippines’ embattled Supreme Court chief justice has urged Filipinos to stand up against authoritarianism and threats to human rights, in an indirect criticism of the country’s volatile leader, who has long called for her removal.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is facing two attempts to oust her, including by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, whose legal counsel asked the Supreme Court to expel her for allegedly not declaring her assets in the past, making her ineligible to be the country’s judicial leader.

The justice committee of the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Mr Duterte’s allies, is expected to vote on Thursday to uphold an impeachment case against Ms Sereno, who has gone on indefinite leave.

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Thirteen justices of the 15-member court have backed Ms Sereno’s leave amid the strife lashing the judiciary.

“The current state of the nation is one where perceived enemies of the dominant order are considered fair game for harassment, intimidation and persecution, where shortcuts are preferred over adherence to constitutional guarantees of human rights,” Ms Sereno said in a speech at a Manila college.

“Let us be thoroughly convinced that we can do something to change the situation as citizens of this country. We must not be passive spectators to what is happening,” she said, citing constitutional passages on the need to uphold civil liberties, accountability and transparency in government.

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Without mentioning Mr Duterte by name, Ms Sereno also criticised the use of foul rhetoric against women, saying “coarseness, including the denigration of women, rather than civility mark the language of the podium”.

Comments by the president, including one that encouraged troops to shoot female communist rebels in their genitals, have shocked human rights and women’s groups and sparked condemnation.

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Mr Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque Jr, has tried to counter the criticisms by saying the president’s remarks should not be taken literally.

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

The House is expected to impeach Ms Sereno based on 27 allegations, including her alleged failure to file her annual statements of assets and liabilities as required by law. If she is impeached, the Senate will form itself into an impeachment court.

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Separately, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a petition at the Supreme Court on Monday questioning Ms Sereno’s eligibility for her role, and also for allegedly failing to file the required annual statement of assets and liabilities.

In the petition, Mr Calida said the Judicial Bar Council, which recommends candidates for chief justice to the president, backed Ms Sereno for the office despite her failure to submit her asset declarations between 1986 and 2006, when she served as a professor in the College of Law at the state-run University of the Philippines.

Ms Sereno’s camp, however, say she has declared all her income and paid the corresponding taxes and can prove that in an impeachment trial.

International rights groups and local critics have accused Mr Duterte of drifting towards authoritarianism after declaring martial law in the south. He has overseen a drug war marked by thousands of killings of mostly poor suspects.

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