By: John Berthelsen

From the start of his presidency in July 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has betrayed an unsettling determination to twist the law into new spirals in order to get at his enemies in ways that in previous administration would have been doubtful at best.

The president has used dubious law to keep his most distinguished critic, former Attorney General Leila de Lima, in jail without trial on charges of complicity in drug deals that international critics allege are specious after, as a member of the Senate she attempted an investigation into his infamous war on drugs, That “war” has taken the lives of anywhere between 10,000 and 25,000 drug users, almost of them all poor and powerless. She has since been named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Duterte used the impeachment process to get rid of the highly respected former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and replace her with Teresita Leondardo-de Castro, a Duterte ally. Sereno had opposed Duterte’s attempts to go after judges he accused of being sympathetic to drug interests, saying the court could police itself.  He has used various laws to go after the most responsible critics in the press. He has sought to drive out his own vice president, another critic.

His latest target is Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who took over as Duterte’s chief detractor after the jailing of de Lima. Trillanes was arrested on Sept. 24. He has proved to be Duterte’s most vocal opponent, accusing the president and his son of corruption and of their own involvement in illegal drugs, which Duterte has denied. Trillanes has also asked for an investigation by the International Criminal Court into allegations of crimes by Duterte against humanity in the drug war. He has accused the president of holding secret bank accounts worth PHP2 billion (US$36.7 million), providing what he said was documentation, which Duterte has denied.

A onetime Philippine Navy officer, Trillanes, now 47, in 2003 led what was called the Oakwood Mutiny, comprising some 300 junior officers and enlisted men who attempted to stage a coup against what he said was rampant corruption in the Arroyo’s government, then tried it again in 2007. Both coups failed, and Trillanes was sentenced to prison, where in a fit of audacity, he campaigned for the Philippine Senate in 2007 from his jail cell and won.

Tuesday’s arrest stirred widespread criticism, with Human Rights Watch denouncing the move as “part of the persecution of critics of the Duterte administration, the latest in the relentless campaign to silence those who dared to challenge the president’s murderous ‘drug war,’ HRW said in a prepared release.”Senator Trillanes has proven to be the biggest thorn in the side of President Duterte. He criticized the “drug war” killings and accused people in the administration – including the president’s own son – of corruption. He has likewise supported the International Criminal Court’s preliminary examination of the complaints against President Duterte related to the “drug war.” Trillanes’s arrest today sends a chilling effect to other critics of the Duterte administration.”

Trillanes was ordered jailed after being holed up in the Senate following charges by Duterte that he had violated the terms of an amnesty granted by former President Benigno S. Aquino III in 2011 for Trillanes’ part in the two coups against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom he claimed was irretrievably corrupt. Arroyo was arrested and spent most of Aquino’s term in a neck brace, claiming she had a degenerative illness. 

‘Duterte’s supreme court has since acquitted Arroyo, who has returned to the House of Representatives and has risen to become house speaker. Once she was acquitted, she threw away the neck brace.

Duterte has betrayed unsettling tendencies toward autocracy ever since he became president. However, his approval rating with the general population remains at 75 percent, and his trust rating is at 72 percent although both have dropped sharply from 88 percent and 87 percent respectively, in polls taken in early September by Pulse Asia.  Inflation is beginning to eat away at the economy, with rice prices  zooming upward.

He is also attempting to put Rappler, the country’s leading social news site, out of business for reporting critically on the war on drugs and supposedly using “fake news.”. He has engineered charges by the Bureau of Internal Revenue against the news portal for allegedly failing to pay US$2.576 million in taxes. Ressa has decried the charges as “harassment.”

A critical press has taken the brunt of Duterte’s antagonism in a country that often ranks among the world’s most dangerous for reporters according to the press watchdogs Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it the world’s fifth most dangerous country, with at least 177 media workers killed since 1986.  He has forced the sale of the respected broadsheet the Philippine Daily Inquirer to a crony and has issued threats against the respected news organization ABS-CBN. Rappler itself has denied there was any tax evasion.

He has threatened to impeach Vice President Leni Robredo and accused her of treason after she criticized his drug war. He reportedly would like to replace Robredo with Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of onetime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who received a hero’s burial in the country’s most hallowed graveyard despite the fact that Marcos clearly faked his war record and, more recently, was discovered to have plagiarized all of his writings or had them ghostwritten.