Two months after scoring a resounding mid-term election win, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now going for the political kill against the opposition.

Last week, police filed sedition charges against Vice President Leni Robredo and 35 other leading government critics, including prominent senators, Catholic Church clergy, ex-soldiers and leftists.

National police filed the complaint based on the testimony of self-proclaimed but widely discredited whistleblower Peter Joemel Advincula, more popularly known by his online hooded personage “Bikoy.”

Advincula appeared in a series of video clips that went viral ahead of May’s elections accusing Duterte’s family and associates of involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Duterte and his family members have regularly and vigorously denied the charges, including in response to a Blue Ribbon Senate committee probe into his son Paolo Duterte’s alleged association with Chinese drug syndicates.

However, while in police custody, Advincula flipped the script on his claims by accusing leading opposition figures of enlisting him in a secret plot, known as “Project Sodoma”, he claims aimed to “destabilize” the government.

Peter Joemel Advincula, more popularly known by his online hooded personage Bikoy, gives testimony to police in a file photo. Twitter.

The Philippine National Police, which initially questioned Advincula’s credibility, is now accepting his testimony to formally accuse the country’s second most powerful figure and top senators with anti-state sedition.

Local reports said Advincula was previously convicted for fraud and has made contradictory statements in the past. Duterte’s spokesman, Salavador Panelo, meanwhile, has denied the government is behind the charges.

Either way, the accusation represents a daggers-drawn escalation, one that could tilt the country in a less democratic, more authoritarian direction if Robredo and others are found guilty and potentially even jailed.

Such a scenario, observers and analysts note, would effectively ban the last vestiges of checking and balancing opposition to Duterte’s controversial rule.

Some even foresee a possible return to a Ferdinand Marcos-style dictatorship, where for years during the 1970’s and 80’s the opposition was cowed into submission through violence and threats.

Unlike then, however, the politicized move could put Duterte on a collision course with his armed forces, as top brass including the defense chief have expressed doubts about the credibility of previous government accusations of an opposition-hatched conspiracy.

The presidential palace had earlier used Advincula’s testimony to implicate a smaller group of opposition figures, celebrities and prominent journalists as part of a supposed “matrix” conspiracy that aimed to topple the government.

Significantly, prominent members of the defense establishment have openly questioned the credibility of those accusations.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures during a Reuters interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTX30A9V
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. Photo: AFP

“We did not have prior information about that,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in mixture of English and Tagalog during an interview with GMA Network in late April when asked about the credibility of the “matrix” conspiracy.

The defense chief also openly questioned Advincula’s reliability as a witness, while wondering aloud where the presidential palace had received its information about the alleged anti-government conspiracy.

“As for us, we have not seen any active ouster plot,” Lorenzana said, emphasizing that no active plot against the government would likely go unnoticed by the military’s extensive intelligence units.

“A destabilization plot needs recruitment of people from the military, police and local officials. We haven’t noticed any such effort,” Lorenzana said.

“As for the information from the palace, maybe they have some information on small groups. But as to a destabilization plot? You would need the military support for such to be credible. As such, we do not see any plot to overthrow the president,” the defense chief added.

The list of those accused of sedition notably reads like a who’s who of Duterte’s strongest and most credible opposition critics.

They include senator and ex-justice secretary Leila de Lima, currently jailed on what many see as trumped-up drug-related charges, and ex-soldier Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who police previously tried to arrest and detain on what many saw as politicized charges.

Senator Antonio 'Sonny' Trillanes in a May 5, 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV in a May 5, 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“The filing of cases against key members of the opposition are clear acts of political persecution and harassment by the Duterte administration meant to stifle democratic dissent,” Trillanes said in a statement.

The senator accused police investigators of having “clearly abused and misused the subpoena power recently bestowed on them to single out critics of the Duterte administration.”

Others named in the sedition accusation include “Otso Diretso” (straight eight) opposition candidates who stood but largely lost to Duterte allies at the midterm elections, including former House deputy speaker Erin Tañada, ex-congressman and soldier Gary Alejano, and former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, among others.

Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros, for one, has lambasted the sedition charges as a “badly written telenovela” based on “bad acting. awful script. [and] terrible plot twist.”

“I find it ludicrous that after the (PNP) assailed the credibility of ‘Bikoy,’ even threatening him with arrest when he came out with videos accusing President Rodrigo Duterte, his family and close political friends of links to illegal drugs, after he sings a different tune, the PNP now finds him credible,” she said in a statement.

“I fear that this is another attempt to introduce a ‘distracting narrative’ to the people to veer public attention away from the real issues surrounding the country’s state of affairs,” the senator said.

She said that the opposition would not be “distracted,” “intimidated,” and “back down” by the sedition charges. “Even against overwhelming odds, we will continue to speak truth to power and defend democracy and human rights in the country.”

Relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass against drug war killings at the Edsa Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, Philippines November 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao
Relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass against drug war killings at the Edsa Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, November 5, 2017.

The Catholic Church was equally outraged by the sedition charges leveled against some of its most prominent members, including former Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Archbishop Socrates Villegas, a noted critic of Duterte’s lethal drug war.

Current CBCP president Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles described the sedition charges as “beyond belief.” “I know these bishops quite well,” the Catholic leader said. “I cannot bring myself to believe that these bishops were involved in seditious activities.”

Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, the CBCP’s newly elected vice president, slammed the charges against him and his colleagues as “unjust”, “atrocious” and “based on nothing but false testimony.”

“What motivates the supposed witness to give false testimonies is what in fact they should be investigating,” he said. “The intention is obvious: pure harassment and an effort on the part of the PNP to do, not their sworn duty, but what they think will be pleasing to the higher authorities.”

The list also included former Education Secretary Armin Luistro, a prominent Jesuit from De La Salle University, as well as members of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), a lawyers’ group that has openly questioned the legality of Duterte’s controversial policies, including the drug war.

Political observers believe that the central target of the sedition charges is Robredo, who has recently stepped up her criticism of Duterte, including in regard to his cozy ties with China.

Philippine Vice President during at the 121st Independence Day celebrations at Rizal monument, Manila, June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Artur Widak

Last month, after a Chinese vessel sank a Filipino boat in the contested South China Sea, Robredo criticized the government for its perceived inaction, while meeting victims of the incident amid much fanfare.

This month, she provoked further ire among government officials when she openly endorsed the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s call for investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s drug war.

“For me, they should be entertained since they are members of the United Nations who follow specific procedures,” Robredo said in contradiction to the government’s opposition to any investigation by the UN or other related international bodies for reasons of sovereignty.

Shortly after, Manuelito Luna, head of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), openly threatened to impeach Robredo for her expressed views.

“For the n-th time, [Robredo] has made it appear that the government is guilty of human rights abuses, and that’s betrayal of public trust,” said Luna. “It’s about time that she should be held to account for her political sins against the Filipino people.”