MANILA (NYTIMES) - The police have charged members of the Philippine political opposition – including the country’s vice-president – with sedition and other offences for reportedly plotting to oust President Rodrigo Duterte, charges they described on Friday (July 19) as harassment to intimidate critics of the increasingly autocratic leader.
The charges against the 36 people, including Vice-President Leni Robredo, several senators and Catholic officials, are aimed at those who have been sharply critical of Mr Duterte’s war on drugs and other actions, like his crackdown on the news media.
The charges were filed on Thursday by the national police, which said Ms Robredo and the others planned to link Mr Duterte, his family and government officials to drug syndicates.
If convicted, they face between six and 12 years in prison. As of Friday, no warrants had been issued for their arrests.
Those charged on Thursday have been accused of conspiring with a man who appeared in a series of online videos that say that Mr Duterte has ties to drug syndicates.
The police apprehended the man in the videos, Peter John Advincula, who then told investigators he made up the accusations against Mr Duterte to discredit him and destabilise his government in a plot concocted by the President’s opponents.
Mr Duterte’s spokesman, Mr Salvador Panelo, said on Friday that the government welcomed the charges against the vice-president and her political allies.
“It’s about time to know the truth about these videos,” Mr Panelo said. “As far as we’re concerned, let the judicial process do its work.”
Rights groups questioned the timing of the filing of the charges, which came just four days before Mr Duterte was to deliver his annual state of the nation address to Congress, on Monday.
Many groups, including those supported by the influential Roman Catholic Church, are expected to protest in the streets to counter the speech.
Ms Robredo, a soft-spoken lawyer and a former legislator, has questioned Mr Duterte’s drug war, which has left more than 6,600 people dead in the past three years, according to police estimates.
Ms Robredo has supported a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council to carry out an independent investigation into extrajudicial killings being carried out in the Philippines by the police.
While Ms Robredo has so far not made any statements regarding the charges she faces, her allies have called on the public to support her.
Mr Duterte has not hidden his contempt for the vice-president. He had said repeatedly in public that he supported Mr Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who lost the race for the vice presidency to Ms Robredo three years ago. Mr Marcos is the son of the country’s former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
The Marcoses are staunch allies of Mr Duterte and political donors to his campaigns. Among his first acts as president was to give dictator Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial.
In the Philippines, the president and the vice-president are elected separately, and some people have suggested that the charges against Ms Robredo are a politically motivated way to manoeuvre the younger Marcos into the No. 2 post.
“It is a badly written telenovela,” or soap opera, said Senator Risa Hontiveros, one of those who was charged on Thursday. “Bad acting. Awful script. Terrible plot twist.”
She called the charges “a total waste of taxpayers’ money”.
“Instead of devoting human resources and money to pursue big-time drug lords and other criminals,” she added, “our police force goes on a wild-goose chase to further harass and intimidate the democratic opposition.”
Filing the charges ahead of Mr Duterte’s speech to Congress was “another attempt to introduce a distracting narrative to the people to veer public attention away from the real issues surrounding the country’s state of affairs”, she said.
Another Duterte opponent, Senator Leila de Lima, who has been detained for more than two years after being accused by Mr Duterte of involvement in illegal drugs, called the latest charges trumped up.
“I don’t know if the police investigated,” said Ms de Lima, who in the past led an investigation into the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users in the southern city of Davao when Mr Duterte was mayor there.