Flavie Villanueva and Albert Alejo were strong critics of the deadly anti-drug war by former President Duterte
Father Albert Alejo (left) and Father Flavie Villanueva (center) celebrate Mass for the victims of deadly anti-drug crackdown during the rule of former President Rodrigo Duterte. (Photo supplied)
A court in the Philippines has acquitted two Catholic priests together with a former lawmaker and several others, from the criminal charge of conspiring to commit sedition.
Human rights activists, Jesuit Father Albert Alejo and Society of Divine Word Father Flavie Villanueva and others were acquitted due to insufficiency of evidence, the Metropolitan Trial Court in Quezon City in the national capital Manila said in its ruling on Sept. 6.
Alejo and Villanueva were fierce critics of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on illegal drugs.
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Rights groups say Duterte's presidency between 2016-2022 claimed the lives of more than 30,000 suspected drug dealers and users in extra-judicial killings.
The priests were slapped with the charge of “conspiracy to commit sedition” for their alleged role in the production and dissemination of a video implicating Duterte and his family in a drug cartel.
In their defense, the priests said there was no evidence to prove their participation in the alleged distribution and production of the video.
The court said the prosecution "fell short of proving that the accused were guilty in the instant case."
"The prosecution failed to prove the commission of the crime of conspiracy to commit sedition as alleged,” it added.
Those convicted of conspiracy to commit sedition face a minimum of six years to a maximum of 12 years in prison and a fine.
Villanueva said their acquittal proved that many fabricated charges were filed against those who dissented from the Duterte regime.
Villanueva told UCA News that he saw the case "as the price to pay when we defend the voiceless, side with the truth and stand for justice.”
He said knowing that his co-accused were fellow human rights defenders and a fellow clergyman gave him courage.
Villanueva said his acquittal encouraged him to fight for the causes of the poor and the defenseless in Philippine society.
Alejo, on the other hand, wished for the release of former lawmaker Leila De Lima, who is also a Duterte critic and human rights defender and is still in jail.
“I am glad that our justice system still has spaces for sanity… But I shall be happier when I see Senator Leila De Lima released and all the rest of those unfairly treated enjoy justice,” Alejo told UCA News.
Alejo said the fight for human rights should continue even though Duterte is no longer the president.
“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 said.
“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 case against the two priests and others was filed in February 2020. The defendants secured bail before the trial started in March that year.
The two were not the only priests to face criminal charges under the Duterte regime.
In 2019, the Justice Department filed sedition charges against four bishops and a priest. The charges were dropped in 2020 for want of evidence.
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