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Appealing to public, Philippine lawmaker files Duterte's first impeachment complaint (+video)

Rep. Gary Alejano filed the impeachment complaint on Thursday, but it will be an uphill battle to secure enough support to take down Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte talks to reporters after a news conference at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines on March 13, 2017.
Erik De Castro/ Reuters
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On Thursday, Gary Alejano, a member of the House of Representatives in the Philippines, filed an impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte, the first attempt at an impeachment made against the controversial leader. Representative Alejano accused Mr. Duterte of a number of impeachable offenses, including "engaging in bribery, betrayal of public trust, graft and corruption and other high crimes."

Duterte remains very popular in the Philippines, despite sharp criticism from the international community for his bloody war on drugs, which has killed more than 8,000 people in the country.

"We are of the firm belief that President Duterte is unfit to hold the highest office of the land and that impeachment is the legal and constitutional remedy to this situation," said Alejano.

Duterte has encouraged law enforcement and civilians to shoot drug suspects if they fight back, and has publicly threatened the lives of drug lords. In the complaint, Alejano cited Senate testimony from a retired police officer and a former militiaman who claimed they murdered drug suspects and opponents as part of a "death squad" under Duterte when he was mayor of Davao City. Also among the charges the complaint leveled against Duterte are 2 billion pesos ($40 million US) that it claims the president never declared as required by law.

Duterte has already denied most of the offenses cited by Alejano, but human rights groups have supported such claims of extrajudicial killings and rampant corruption connected to his war against drugs. Earlier this month, a report released by Human Rights Watch accused the Philippine National Police of falsifying evidence to justify unlawful killings of suspected dealers and users. 

The president and other senior Filipino officials have "instigated and incited" extrajudicial killings in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity, said the watchdog group, which called on the United Nations to launch an investigation into the deaths of more than 7,000 people.

But despite international criticism, it is unlikely that impeachment proceedings will succeed within the Philippines itself. One third of the House's more than 290 members have to support the complaint before it can be sent to the Senate for trial, and more than 260 representatives form a pro-Duterte bloc.

"We understand that in terms of numbers we face an uphill battle," said Alejano, emphasizing that sufficient pressure from the general public could push lawmakers to support the impeachment proceedings. "But precisely, the battle for impeachment must be fought both inside and outside the halls of Congress."

"Our role ... is merely to be the gate-openers for those who want to be a part of this historic and moral crusade," he added.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the push would not succeed, claiming that the effort was part of a broader scheme to undermine Duterte's authority.

"It seems rather dramatic that everything seems to be so coordinated at this stage," he said. "It looks like they're scraping the bottom of the barrel."

Impeachment complaints have been filed against presidents in the Philippines before, with mixed results. Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo survived five impeachment complaints unscathed. In 2000, however, impeachment charges against then-President Joseph Estrada were brought to the Senate, the first time in the country's history; the trial eventually led to his downfall, in the wake of massive protests following prosecutors' decision to walk out of the trial.

If this particular attempt is unsuccessful, the opposition will have to wait a year before being allowed to file another impeachment complaint.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.