Filipino priest to stand trial for sedition charges after speaking out on president’s drug policies

Protest against the Philippine war on drugs at the Philippines Consulate General in New York City Credit VOCAL NY CC 20 CNA A protest against the Philippine war on drugs outside the Philippines Consulate General in NYC. | Vocal NY (CC BY 2.0).

A Catholic priest in the Philippines is set to stand trial on sedition charges, stemming from his public objections to President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug policies. 

Father Flaviano "Flavie" Villanueva, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, is "set to stand trial" on charges of "conspiracy to commit sedition," which the government laid on him last year, the BBC reported this week. He denies the charges against him.

During February 2020, the Filipino government dropped all charges against four bishops and two priests who were accused of attempting to overthrow the president, as prosecutors admitted that there is no evidence linking the six clerics to a plot to attempt to overthrow Duterte.

At the same time, the Justice Department announced fresh charges of "conspiracy to commit sedition" against Villanueva, Fr. Albert Alejo, S.J., and nine laypeople.

The charges came about after an April 2019 video went viral in the country. Posted by an anonymous man, known only as "Bikoy," the video alleged that Duterte's son, Paolo Duterte, and a high-level presidential aide were involved in the drug trade.

"Bikoy" later identified himself as Peter Advincula, and claimed that the bishops, along with the opposition party, were part of a "shadow group" that aimed to remove Duterte as president. That video led to the charges being filed.

The bishops, who maintained their innocence since the accusations were made, at the time offered mixed reactions to the news that they had been cleared but others charged.

"Now that the government officials have seen the falsity of the charges, what can we do but pray as I have always been doing. I pray even more," Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan said in a February 2020 statement published by the Philippine Bishops' Conference.

Villanueva has been out on bail since February 2020, and so far he is the only one reported to be about to stand trial.

Tens of thousands of people may have died amid a crackdown on the drug trade launched by Duterte after he was elected president in 2016.

The alleged suspects are often shot by police under the allegation that they attacked first. In addition, extrajudicial killings have sprung up, with vigilantes killing hundreds of people suspected of drug sales or use. Thousands of people have been killed in the crackdown, with human rights activists suggesting the number may have exceeded 10,000.

Villanueva, a former substance abuser, had since July 2015 run the St. Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center, an organization in Manila that helps the poor and homeless. He has spoken out repeatedly against Duterte's policies, even calling the drug war "fake."

"If being seditious means providing care and sanctuary for those who have been left behind and victimized by the fake drug war, then I accept, and I am guilty of sedition," the priest told the BBC.

"But, obviously, I don't find anything seditious with helping a brother, a sister, a wounded family."

The country's Catholic bishops have long been vocal in their opposition to Duterte, including his "war on drugs." Duterte in turn has been vocal in his dislike of religion, and a consistent critic of the Catholic Church.

Catholic leaders in the Philippines have also spoken out against Duterte's call to reinstate the death penalty for illegal drug use and other crimes.

Duterte has insulted Pope Francis in the past. In 2016, prior to his election as president, he called the Roman Pontiff a "son of a wh-re" after a papal visit caused increased traffic in Manila. Duterte later apologized to the pope in a letter.

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He is expected to end his term as president June 30, 2022.

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