PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday called for a stop to plans to impeach Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo for criticizing his administration’s war against illegal drugs before a United Nations (UN) meeting.
This was echoed by Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, who said on Friday Congress had “other important works” to attend to.
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and a group of lawyers, however, were undeterred, and vowed to continue building up an impeachment complaint against Robredo.
The group of lawyers led by Duterte supporter Bruce Rivera accused the Vice President of “betrayal of public trust” for speaking out against the drug war in a six-minute video sent to the UN meeting last week.
In a news conference upon his arrival from a trip to Thailand, Duterte told those attempting to oust Robredo to “lay off” and instead respect the Filipino electorate’s decision to elect her as the country’s vice president.
He said Robredo’s remarks should not be used as basis for her impeachment and that she should be given the right to exercise freedom of speech.
“Look, you know, we just had an election. Guys, lay off. Let’s stop it. You can do other things but do not tinker with the structure of government. I will not countenance it,” Duterte told reporters.
“Elected `yang tao e [She was elected]. So why do you have to [impeach her]? Is it just because she keeps on harping on me? Hayaan mo [Let her be], this is a democracy, freedom of speech. There are no overt acts committed,” he added.
Robredo, a human rights lawyer and a staunch critic of the Duterte administration, alleged in a video message sent to a UN meeting last week that targets of the police in anti-drug operations were often beaten up if they asked for a search warrant.
Alvarez, Duterte’s longtime friend and political ally, earlier threatened to file an impeachment complaint against Robredo for betraying public trust because of the video message.
The President himself is facing an impeachment complaint filed by Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano over violation of the Constitution, bribery, betrayal of public trust, graft and corruption, and other high crimes.
Speaking before the Filipino community in Thailand on Wednesday night, Duterte made light of his supporters’ claim that Robredo wants to oust him from power.
He joked that perhaps a better alternative is for Robredo to marry him instead.
“Apurado, gusto ako paalisin. ‘Di pa nga ako dumating isang taon dito paalisin mo na ako. Sige, dalaga man siya, sige pakasalan mo ako [In a hurry, she wants me out. I haven’t even reached one year, you want me out. Okay, she’s still young, okay, marry me],” the President said in jest.
“So dalawa na tayo dito, at least hindi ako mawawalan nang ano, bulong nang bulong na lang ako sa iyo [So both of us are here, at least I won’t run out of…I will keep on whispering to you],” he added.
Duterte then asked Robredo to be patient, claiming she has yet to prove herself to the Filipino people.
“Nagmamadali, maghintay ka. Wala ka pang ginawa sa bayan e [You are rushing, you wait. You haven’t done that much yet for the country],” he said.
The President’s statement came just days after he said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Robredo had a hand in his own impeachment woes.
Pimentel said impeachment should be the last resort against erring high officials, and should only be used for serious and grave reasons.
“Impeachment is divisive and time consuming. It distracts us from other important works and it should not be treated lightly,” Pimentel said.
Speaker Alvarez, however, disagreed with Pimentel, his partymate in the ruling PDP-Laban party.
“I respect the President’s opinion, but we [in Congress]have a Constitutional mandate to process any impeachment complaint that will be filed in the House of Representatives since we have exclusive jurisdiction over impeachment. Legislative is a separate branch of government,” Alvarez said in a television interview.
“I am still studying [the possibility of filing an impeachment complaint against Robredo]. This is not just about numbers but substance. We need to have evidence that can stand trial in an impeachment court,” Alvarez added.
‘Impeach Leni Team’
Despite Duterte’s appeal to stop any move to oust Robredo, a group of lawyers on Thursday vowed to submit an impeachment complaint against the Vice President.
“We are doing this not for Duterte but for the Filipino people,” Bruce Rivera, the group’s spokesman, explained during a news conference at the Hotel Rembrandt.
Rivera said their impeachment complaint would be based on the general grounds of betrayal of public trust and culpability in violating the Constitution.
Rivera also castigated Commission on Human Rights Chairman Chito Gascon for his continued declaration that the Duterte administration had committed abuses specifically extrajudicial killings in its all-out war against illegal drugs.
Branding themselves as “Impeach Leni Team,’ the volunteer lawyers said they were in the midst of building up their case against the Vice President, most notably over her controversial video, played at a side session organized in line with the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs annual meeting last week.
“Leni Robredo has gone too far. The means in which she has conducted herself since assuming office has been inimical to the public interest, ruinous and prejudicial to the economy, eroded confidence in the legal system and government, and places the honor and dignity of the Filipino to naught,” the lawyers said in their statement.
Among the members of the team are Interior and Local Government Assistant Secretary Epimaco Densing 3rd, Rivera, Trixie Cruz-Angeles, and political science professor Antonio Contreras.
They said they are in talks with congressmen who may endorse the complaint at the House of Representatives.
‘Dissent does not mean ousting Duterte’
Robredo on Thursday stood by her video message and said she was not out to take the presidency from Duterte.
Robredo made the statement after her meeting with urban poor and people’s organizations.
“Verbalizing strong sentiments against the drug war does not mean I want to replace the President. The goal of our dissent is for us to be heard, especially on the drug-related killings. If they hear us out and address this, then my purpose has been achieved,” she said.
The Vice President shared Duterte’s sentiments that an impeachment process won’t be good for the country.
“It would be better for the country if there will be no impeachment, whether it is against the President or against me, because Congress has a lot of better things to do, like attending to legislations for reform. Impeachment is divisive, and this won’t be good for everybody in the long run,” Robredo said.
“The problem is my dissent is being misinterpreted as destabilization,” Robredo added.
WITH LLANESCA T. PANTI, JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA, JING VILLAMENTE AND DEMPSEY REYES