Sedition charges against bishops critical of Duterte dropped

The police had accused them and 28 other people of conspiring to overthrow the government. For the Justice Department, there is no evidence to substantiate them. Meanwhile, two priests and nine other people are still going to trial. For the bishop of Bayombong, “we will never stop expressing our opinions on matters of faith, human rights, the protection of life.”

Manila (AsiaNews) – The Philippines Department of Justice (DOJ) has dropped sedition charges against four bishops, a priest and a man religious.

Last July, police had accused them and 28 other people – including prominent opposition politicians like Vice President Leni Robredo – of conspiring to overthrow the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.

For many Filipinos, such a move was but an attempt by the Duterte administration to intimidate and silence its critics.

The prelates in question are Archbishop Socrates Buenaventura Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, and Auxiliary Bishop Teodoro Cruz Bacani Jr of Novaliches.

Yesterday, the DOJ stated that the prelates had no intention of offending and that the complaints filed by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group are not backed by any evidence.

For Bishop Jose Elmer Imas Mangalinao of Bayombong, news of the acquittal is a “happy gift”.

“Like many other bishops and priests, I am relieved,” said Bishop Mangalinao, who is also vice president of the Standing Committee of Public Affairs (SCPA) of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

“Justice is served,” he told AsiaNews, “because the Lord has defended the truth that we have professed since the beginning of this story.”

Thankfully, “A heavy cross has been removed from our shoulders, especially from those of the accused. As Archbishop Socrates pointed out, the decision to drop the accusations will help the bishops involved to better focus on the most urgent needs of people.

The bishop of Bayombong went on to stress that “The Philippine Church is not looking for confrontation with the government. Unfortunately, the president is convinced that the bishops are against him.

“Even if this may lead to a direct confrontation, we will never stop expressing our opinions on matters of faith, human rights, protection of life, environment and the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples.

“I invite everyone to pray for us and to support us in our battles for the good of the Philippines.”"

The investigations on sedition and other charges stem from a video posted online that went viral. In it, President Duterte and his family are accused of involvement in drug trafficking.

Despite the acquittal of the four bishops, Fr Robert Reyes and Lasallian religious Brother Armin Luistro, the DOJ has recommended that Fr Flaviano Villanueva and Fr Albert Alejo be brought to trial along with nine other people, including ex-senator Antonio Trillanes IV, Duterte's bitter rival.

When the case began, the Bishops’ Conference came to the defence of the accused priests and prelates, insisting that the charges were "beyond belief".

The clergymen’s “sincerity, decency, respectfulness and love for our country and our people are beyond doubt,” said at the time CBCP president Archbishop Romulo Geolina Valles of Davao.

“The move is obviously meant to scare the hell out of these churchmen and eventually silence them," said Fr Jerome Secillano, chairman of the CBCP Public Affairs Office.

Our brothers “are neither fighting the government nor Duterte. What they are against are the repressive policies that put so much burden on the poor," explained Fr Secillano. (PF)