Duterte tells UN expert 'to go to hell' over criticism

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. (By Associated Press)

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The unprecedented expulsion of the Philippine chief justice after the president lambasted her in public is an attack on judicial independence that could imperil the country's democracy, a U.N. expert warned.

U.N. Rapporteur Diego Garcia-Sayan, who looks into threats to the independence of judges and lawyers worldwide, said he has sent questions to the Philippine government about the circumstances leading to the May 11 ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno from the high court and expects a response within 60 days.

Sereno's ouster has generated "a climate of intimidation" in the 15-member tribunal and in other ranks of the judiciary, he said in an interview Thursday. He added that there was no formal U.N. investigation into her removal but that he has to speak up when threats to judicial independence are reported anywhere.

It's the latest alarm raised by U.N. special investigators about President Rodrigo Duterte's nearly two-year rule. Other U.N. rapporteurs have raised concerns over his crackdown on illegal drugs which has left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead and his threats against human rights defenders.

"If the chief justice can be easily expelled, everybody would have to dance with the same music and with that, the independence of the judiciary is finished and that opens the route of abuse of power," said Garcia-Sayan, who visited Manila to attend a conference.

"When independence of justice is destroyed, checks and balances are finished," he said. "Historically, that always has led to human rights violations, to corruption and to abuse of power because the checks and balances are essential to control temptations that individuals have to absolute power."

Sereno, 57, was expelled by an 8-6 vote on a petition filed by the government solicitor-general that accused her of failing to file asset disclosures as a state university law professor years ago, a charge she denies. It pre-empted impeachment proceedings against Sereno that were then underway in Congress.

She has appealed the ruling, citing a constitutional principle that top judiciary officials can only be removed by congressional impeachment. A majority of the 23-member Senate, including some Duterte allies, has asked the Supreme Court to review its decision, calling it a "dangerous precedent" that infringed on Congress' power to impeach senior officials.

"When I say the independence of justice is under attack, and it is a crucial thing to defend the independence of justice, I'm not thinking only of Chief Justice Sereno but of the democratic system as a whole in the Philippines," said Garcia-Sayan, who warned that other justices could be targeted for removal.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Garcia-Sayan was misinformed because Sereno was ousted by her fellow justices following hearings on her failure to file some past statements of assets and liabilities. Although Duterte was critical of Sereno for claiming that he plotted against her, he had no hand in her expulsion, Roque said.

"We reiterate that the president's dislike of the ousted chief justice is not an attack to the judiciary or an affront to judicial independence. It is a reaction to the allegations," Roque said in a statement.

Duterte, a 73-year-old former city mayor, first called for Sereno's impeachment in 2016 after she opposed his move to publicly name a number of judges he linked to illegal drugs. Last month, Duterte said he had avoided getting involved in efforts to remove Sereno but got fed up. "So I'm putting you on notice that I am now your enemy. And you have to be out of the Supreme Court," Duterte said in a speech.

Duterte's political intention was clear "when the president himself is attacking, not criticizing, but attacking personally using the most serious words," Garcia-Sayan said, adding that he has to air his concern despite knowing how the president has lashed out at other critical U.N. human rights advocates.

When asked if he intends to report his concerns to U.N. officials, he said he may mention them in his annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva this month. He added he would consider an invitation from the Philippine government to visit for an inquiry but stressed that "the United Nations doesn't intervene."

Duterte has been hypersensitive to criticism and has publicly vented his ire at U.N. officials, Western governments and human rights watchdogs which have accused him of condoning extrajudicial killings in his anti-drug campaign. He once told then U.S. President Barack Obama to "go to hell."

"We share among many of our countries the same concerns, of the same worries about poverty, illegal drug production and drug trade but all of that should be dealt with inside the framework of the rule of law," Garcia-Sayan said, adding that heads of state are no longer just accountable under domestic laws.
"Nobody can do inside the border of their country whatever he or she wants to do. There are international rules, there are national constitutions," he said. "At the end of the day, justice plays a role."
Associated Press journalists Bullit Marquez and Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.