Filipino priests acquitted of sedition charges

Father Flaviano “Flavie” Villanueva Father Albert Alejo Fathers Flaviano “Flavie” Villanueva (left) and Albert Alejo speak to the media before appearing for court on Feb. 11, 2021, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. | Credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Two Catholic priests and nine laypeople, previously on trial in the Philippines for speaking out against a former president’s harsh anti-drug tactics, were acquitted this week of sedition charges. 

As reported by Catholic outlet UCA News, Father Albert Alejo, SJ, and Father Flaviano “Flavie” Villanueva, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, were acquitted due to insufficient evidence, the Metropolitan Trial Court in Quezon City in the national capital of Manila said in its Sept. 6 ruling. 

Villanueva and Alejo had been facing charges of “conspiracy to commit sedition,” which the government laid on them in 2020. 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 former President Rodrigo Duterte’s son, Paolo Duterte, and a high-level presidential aide were involved in the drug trade. The priests were indicted for an alleged role in the video’s production, though in their defense they pointed out there was no evidence to prove their participation in the alleged distribution and production of the video.

A former substance abuser, Villanueva 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 president’s drug war — which saw tens of thousands of people die in extrajudicial killings — “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.”

If convicted the defendants would have faced a minimum of six years to a maximum of 12 years in prison and a fine, UCA News said.

Alejo told the outlet that the fight for human rights should continue even though Duterte is no longer the president; he left office in June 2022.

“We must continue to fight and stop the impunity of those individuals and families who, without qualms of conscience, cause so much pain and suffering to so many of our people,” Alejo told UCA News.

“I salute faith-based groups; in particular, those who refuse to be bystanders in this mission. The fight is not yet over,” he added.

The country’s Catholic bishops had long been vocal in their opposition to Duterte, including his “war on drugs,” and opposed his call to reinstate the death penalty for illegal drug use and other crimes. Philippine rights monitors reported in 2020 that more than 160 political activists had been killed since Duterte became president in 2016.

The firebrand Duterte in turn was vividly descriptive in his dislike of religion in general and of the Catholic Church specifically. 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.

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.

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