Philippine Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has tweaked Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for making public the names of government officials with links to narcotics trade.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno

She instructed the judges mentioned in Duterte’s list of tainted officials not to surrender unless there is a warrant for their arrest.

Duterte has been waging a war against illegal drugs saying it has been destroying the country.

Speaking during his visit at a wake of four fallen soldiers, he identified more than 150 incumbent and former judges, politicians, police and military personnel allegedly involved in illegal drug trade.

He gave them 24 hours to report to their units — the local officials to the Interior and Local Government Department, the police to the Philippine National Police (PNP), the military personnel to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the judges to the Supreme Court.

Sereno, the head of the Philippine Judiciary, told Duterte to follow the constitutional order and let the Supreme Court do its duty of cleaning its own ranks.

“With all due respect, Mr. President, we were caught unprepared by the announcement. It would matter greatly to our sense of constitutional order, if we were given the chance to administer the appropriate preventive measures without the complications of a premature public announcement,” the Chief Justice said.

In the Philippines, as a democratic State, the basic state authority is delegated to three branches of government—the Executive, which is headed by President Duterte, the Judiciary, headed by Sereno, and the Legislative or the Upper and Lower Houses. Each branch is supreme in its own sphere but with constitutional limits and a firm tripod of checks and balances.

‘No warrant, no surrender’

Among the more than 150 officials, Duterte identified seven judges allegedly connected to illegal drug trade.

However, of the seven names, Duterte identified only five judges by their surnames and the province where their courts are located.

Duterte read the names one by one in a speech aired live all around the Philippines. He said the names were validated by the police and the military.

But Sereno, in her letter to the President, said of the seven judges he mentioned, one was killed eight years ago. To date, the murder of the judge remains unsolved.

Another judge was dismissed in 2007 and is no longer part of the Judiciary.

Sereno said they are currently investigating a judge with links to illegal drugs but the judge was not included in Duterte’s list.

She told the judges identified by Duterte not to surrender unless there is a warrant for their arrest.

An arrest warrant is issued by a court only after the filing of a case.

“To safeguard the role of the judges as the protector of constitutional rights, I would caution them very strongly against “surrendering” or making themselves physically accountable to any police officer in the absence of any duly-issued warrant of arrest that is pending,” Sereno said.

 The Chief Justice asked Duterte about his source and basis for publicly identifying the judges.

“The Court would consider it important to know the source and basis of any allegation that specific judges are involved in the illegal drugs trade in line with its duty to exercise administrative supervision over all lower courts,” Sereno said.

But she said a premature announcement will have the unwarranted effect of rendering the judge veritably useless in discharging his role.

“Thus this Court has been careful, all too aware that more often than not, a good reputation is the primary badge of credibility and the only legacy that many of our judges can leave behind.”

 Putting  judges at risk

With the increasing number of extrajudicial killings of those suspected of involvement in narcotics trade, “our judges may have been rendered vulnerable and veritable targets for any of those persons and groups who may consider judges as acceptable collateral damage in the ‘war on drugs.’”

The six judges named by Duterte, Sereno said, may have been more at risk after the President ordered the revocation of firearms licenses issued to them if there are any.

“Because we do not have the personnel to protect our judges, we have requested the Philippine National Police to authorize them to carry defensive firearms. We request that you reconsider your reported order that the judges you named, with the above clarification on who these are, continue to bear these licensed self-defense weapons, if any, until a proper investigation concludes that formal criminal charges should be brought against them,” Sereno said.

Since 1999, 26 judges have been killed, a large proportion reportedly at the behest of crime lords, specifically drug lords.

 To date, more than 800 drug dealers or users have already been killed in the government’s ‘war on drugs.’ Half of them were killed during police operations while others were killed by still unidentified assailants. Most of the victims are poor.

Duterte simply shrugged off the numbers saying ”I do not care. I really don’t care because I know na kapag iyang bangag na — a user is always a pusher except you are the son of an Ayala or Gokongwei  (”I do not care. I really don’t care because once a person is high on drugs -– a user is always a pusher, except when you are the son of an Ayala or Gokongwei),” Duterte said.

Ayala and Gokongwei are two of the richest families in the Philippines.

”Kung ordinary, once you get hooked on drugs, you must find another one to [get] hooked with you para siya ang magbigay ng suporta (Ordinary people like those living in Tondo, once they get hooked on drugs, they must find someone else to get hooked with them who will also support their addiction),” he added.

Records from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency project that the country has about 3.7 million drug dependents.

Local officials are already going to the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters to clear their names after Duterte identified them in public.

The first to appear at the PNP headquarters was Mayor Roland Espinosa Sr. after Duterte warned that they will be subjected to a shoot-on-sight order.

The mayors immediately complied with Duterte’s orders saying they want to clear their names and denied their involvement in illegal drugs.

Duterte’s name-and-shame campaign has been criticized even by international communities.

His biggest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, said Duterte should show evidence by filing proper case in court.

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