Duterte’s word war with women

Lian Buan

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Duterte’s word war with women
How Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales have stood up to the President

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte is one tough-talking man. But every tough-talking man meets his match in an independent woman. Make that two independent women.

2017 saw Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales standing up to the President on different occasions and different issues.

While Morales occasionally toned down her jabs against Duterte, Sereno was consistently bold at every chance.

Here’s a look at the times they addressed the Chief Executive. 

War on drugs, martial law

Duterte’s first 6 months as president was marked by an international scrutiny of his ruthless war on drugs, already killing thousands at the time.

Morales, in December 2016, was soft on the President, saying in an Inquirer forum that Duterte’s public threats to criminals were just words. “It’s not illegal to say, ‘I will kill you,'” she said.

Sereno was a little bit more critical. In January 2017, she announced that the Philippines dropped 19 places in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, and blamed it on the extrajudicial killings.

“Despite all of these positive things and even greater potential gains, we have to face the reality of the daily accounts of unsolved killings, many of them committed brazenly with public warnings against drug pushing or addiction,” Sereno said without directly mentioning Duterte.

The Chief Justice stepped it up in March, calling on lawyers during the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) convention to help address the “creeping impunity.”

“In the face of clear and patent injustices, we have an affirmative duty to not turn a blind eye but to do what we can to help,” Sereno said.

And when the President proclaimed martial law in Mindanao in May, Sereno stood up before graduates of the Ateneo de Manila University and warned that military rule could be used to oppress the people.

“Suffice it to say that the martial law power is an immense power that can be used for good, to solve defined emergencies; but all earthly powers when abused can result in oppression,” Sereno said.

Morales’ turn

Morales then caught up. From saying that Duterte’s public threats were not illegal, the Ombudsman made a very bold statement in July to the Japanese broadcast network NHK: “He’s goading people to kill people. That’s a problem. The directive to kill people under any situation irrespective to the context, to me that’s unacceptable.”

Duterte, of course, took notice and told Morales to “not play God and shut up.”

“Find me a law which says I cannot threaten a criminal with death…, If you can do that, I will step down tomorrow,” Duterte said.

The Office of the Ombudsman’s response was very Morales, to say the least.

“Ombudsman Morales is amused by so much ado about something she did not say. She did not say anything about any law against threatening criminals. The President should review what she said first,” read the statement they released to media.

Morales would not get an invitation to Duterte’s State of the Nation Address a week later, on July 24. 

Instead, the President said that the Ombudsman, as well as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), couldn’t investigate his men for human rights violations without first getting his clearance.

This agitated the feisty Morales so that, days later, raising her eyebrows and rolling her eyes, she told the media, referring to Duterte:  “Ano ang pakialam niya (Why should he interfere)?


Duterte’s words against Morales stepped up in the months that followed. From just telling her to shut up, the President warned Morales on August 29 of the legal debate on whether or not she was entitled to serve her full 7-year term.

Asked to respond to the threat two days later, Morales was uncharacteristically toned down. Speaking softly and smiling at times, Morales explained Republic Act 6770.

“[The law] says that when the incumbent Ombudsman leaves the office by reason of death, removal, or resignation or disability…permanent disability, the Overall Deputy Ombudsman shall be the acting Ombudsman until a new Ombudsman is appointed who shall serve for a full term. Sinusunod lang naming ‘yung batas na ‘yun (we’re just following that law),” she said.

Around the same time, Duterte was also taking swipes at Sereno for allegedly having a lavish lifestyle. An impeachment complaint against her was already on the offing, citing misuse of court funds for perks as one of the grounds.

“He’s the President of the Philippines, we owe him all respect. The fact that he has a mandate to lead, we must observe what the Constitution says. I’m very professional in my dealings with all officials of government. The Constitution is sufficient to guide me in my conduct,” Sereno said.

At a media forum in Cebu, Sereno was asked to comment on human rights violations in Duterte’s war on drugs.

Sereno just said the judiciary is “at the end of the process” to address the problem, but said anyway that there is a special committee reviewing whether the judiciary could be given a more proactive role.

“How do we account for the number of violent deaths that are being seen right now? … We are in the process of evaluating,” Sereno said.

The wealth probe

Things unraveled by September.

Overall Deputy Ombudsman Arthur Carandang revealed to the media that in his investigation into Senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s plunder complaint against Duterte, he acquired bank records that supposedly showed a cash flow of almost P1 billion.

Duterte would not take this sitting down. He threatened to investigate Morales and the entire Office of the Ombudsman for corruption. He set up an anti-corruption commission, which duplicates the functions of the Ombudsman. He said he would file an impeachment complaint against her.

In a series of written statements released to the media, Morales showed a bit of her old feisty self.

On September 29, she said: “Sorry, Mr President but this office shall not be intimidated. If the President has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.”

On October 1: “The Office has already stated its position; to abide by its constitutional duty. No need to add more.”

And on October 3: “I will not be baited into abandoning my constitutional duties. If the President has charges against me, I am prepared to answer the charges against him in the same manner.”

The impeachment complaint against Sereno was already filed by this time, and Duterte again took swipes at her for the PIATCO issue, even calling the Chief Justice corrupt.

In a speech in Davao City on October 1, Duterte challenged both Sereno and Morales to resign with him so that the military could investigate all 3 of them for corruption.

Sereno forceful, Morales mellow

In separate chance interviews in November, Morales was tight-lipped about the President, whether it was about his threats, or the criticism against the wealth probe. Morales has inhibited from the wealth probe, and other Duterte-related cases, such as Edgar Matobato’s complaint on the Davao Death Squad, from which Duterte has been dropped.

Morales is related to the President by marriage. Her nephew, Manases Carpio, is married to Duterte’s eldest daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duerte.

“I note it,” Morales said on the dare to resign, and “No comment,” on the wealth probe.

Sereno, on the other hand, would go on television to address the impeachment complaint which, by this time, had hurdled the House justice committee and was being threshed out in open hearings, exposing infightings and divisions in the Supreme Court.

In an interview with GMA News TV’s Winnie Monsod on November 20, Sereno said of Duterte: May accountability din siya sa Diyos. Tao rin siya. Lahat tayo bilang ang araw natin sa lupa. Hindi siya forever. Walang taong forever.” (He is also accountable to God. He’s also human. Our days are all numbered here on earth. He’s not forever, no man is forever.)

Sereno was also a regular interpellator during the 3-day oral arguments on the petitions against Duterte’s war on drugs before the Supreme Court.

On November 21, Sereno questioned presumption of regularity in police operations.

So kung marami na po tayong nasasabi nating nanlaban, na sinasabi ‘nyong maaaring libo-libo na po, ano pong masasabi ‘nyo rito? Magkakaroon na po ba tayo ng basehan na mayro’n po’ng sistema o pattern na po tayong nakikita sa mga nangyayari?” Sereno said.

(So if we are saying that many have fought back, you said they’re thousands already, what can you say about this? Will we already have a basis for saying we’re seeing a system or pattern in killings based on what has been happening?)

Sereno also attended a human rights summit organized by the IBP national chapter and other law groups critical of Duterte’s crime and drugs policies.

In a speech delivered at the summit, Sereno called for reinforcement, asking the CHR, Civil Service Commission and the Commission on Audit (COA) – 3 bodies that belong to the  Constitutional Fiscal Autonomy Group (CFAG) – to step up in performing their mandates to hold human rights violators accountable.

Her suggestions? To audit police units, both their performances, their spendings, and even promotions and incentives.

“In other words, the levers, the pulls, the stops that work in government bureaucracy are there for you to study and analyze,” Sereno said.

Sereno and Morales attended the CFAG gathering together on December 2. There, Morales re-assumed a critical tone.

Morales said defiantly: “The Ombudsman is not subject to the disciplinary authority of the President.”

Morales added some more: “Groucho Marx satirically describes a tyrant whose mindset follows this certain credo: ’These are my principles, if you don’t like them, I can change them,’ or worse, ‘These are the laws, if I don’t like them, I can break them.’”

Sereno, meanwhile, warned erring policemen: “At the end of the day, crimes will catch up with us. Alam ba nila ho na maaaring kahit ano’ng sabihin nila, akala ‘yun ang tama, hindi po ‘yun magiging defense sa mga krimen na gawa ng ganitong klaseng gravidad.” (Do they know that even if they claim they thought they were doing it right, it won’t stand as defense for crimes this grave.)


Morales is retiring in 7 months. The impeachment bid against her has been revived, but it has not been officially filed at the House of Representatives because not a single lawmaker has endorsed it.

Sereno, on the other hand, would serve as Chief Justice until 2030 – under two more presidents after Duterte – if she survives the impeachment bid against her. (READ: The impeachers: Out to get the Chief Justice and the Ombudsman)

“The President doesn’t like her so there’s nothing to restrain her anymore,” said legal and political analyst Tony La Viña on whether it is wise for Sereno to continue her strong rhetoric. “The country needs a voice like hers.”  Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.