Philippines' chief justice expects impeachment, taking leave

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine Supreme Court's chief justice — who has drawn the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte — expects to be impeached by the House next month and will go on leave to prepare for the trial she's confident of winning, her spokesman said Wednesday.

International rights groups and local critics have accused Duterte of drifting toward authoritarianism after declaring martial law in the south. He has overseen a drug war marked by thousands of killings of mostly poor suspects and has publicly threatened his opponents.

Last year, he said he wanted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and a top anti-graft prosecutor impeached and accused them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.

Sereno will start an indefinite leave Thursday but will not resign amid reports that rival justices demanded she quit in a closed-door meeting, her spokesman Jojo Lacanilao said.

"There is no body or institution outside of the Senate which can force the chief justice to resign," Lacanilao told a news conference. He added that any action to force Sereno to step down other than by convicting her in a Senate trial would be unconstitutional.

"The chief justice has a deep commitment to the constitution, democracy and to the constitutional process," Lacanilao said. "If the Senate trial ends and chief justice is convicted, she will not last for a day in her position."

He said Sereno has not committed any wrongdoing and "did not do anything that can amount to an impeachable offense" and looks forward to the trial, where her defense attorneys could confront her accusers.

The complaint filed by a lawyer cited 27 grounds for impeachment, including alleged corruption and culpable violation of the constitution. She has been accused of not declaring her assets and liabilities as required by the law, buying a luxury vehicle with public funds and deciding without consulting fellow justices.

Sereno has sought dismissal of the complaint, calling the allegations totally false and "nothing short of an impeachment exercise based on fake news." A committee in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte's allies, has preceded with televised impeachment hearings and is expected to cast an initial vote on whether to impeach Sereno next week.

Duterte last year accused the Ombudsman anti-graft agency of allowing the use of illegally obtained or fabricated information to investigate allegations that he kept undeclared wealth in past bank accounts.

The president denied the allegations and challenged Sereno and Ombudsman agency head Conchita Carpio-Morales to resign along with him and to open their bank accounts to scrutiny. Morales and Sereno denied any wrongdoing and rejected Duterte's challenge. The investigation of the alleged undeclared wealth was recently terminated.

Opposition groups and politicians have backed Sereno, who was appointed in 2012 by Duterte's predecessor. A left-wing group of lawyers, the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, expressed concerns over reported efforts by some fellow justices to force Sereno to step down, saying this undermines the high court's integrity and respect for the constitution.

"The losing party here is not the chief justice nor any justice of the court," the group said. "It is the residual faith of the people in already unresponsive institutions whose roles are being wilted away, willingly or unwillingly, to de facto authoritarianism."

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