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Philippine church leaders welcome anti-drug 'czarina'

Supporters warn vice-president and Duterte critic Maria Robredo she could be walking into a trap

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: November 07, 2019 07:48 AM GMT
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Philippine church leaders welcome anti-drug 'czarina'

Philippine Vice President Maria Robredo visits a military camp near Manila on Nov. 7. Robredo, a critic of the government's war on drugs, has been named co-chairperson of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs. (Photo supplied)

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Church leaders in the Philippines have welcomed the appointment of the country's vice president, Maria Robredo, as head of a government body tasked with addressing the country’s illegal drug problem.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, a staunch critic of the government's deadly drug war, said the vice president's acceptance of the appointment was "very laudable."

Last week President Rodrigo Duterte named Robredo as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs, which oversees the administration’s campaign against narcotics.

The position gives the vice president, a member of the political opposition and a critic of Duterte's drug war, oversight over drug enforcement agencies until June 30, 2022.

Despite warnings from her supporters that she is being set up to fail, Robredo accepted the appointment, saying she intends to curb drug killings and to hold those behind rights abuses accountable.

"Even if we say that the offer was mere politicking and the government agencies will not follow me and they will do everything for me not to succeed, I’m ready to bear all of these," she said. "If I can save one innocent life, my principles and heart are telling me I should give it a try." 

Human rights groups claimed that up to 30,000 suspected drug users and dealers have been killed in the government's bloody anti-narcotics campaign which began in 2016.

Bishop David said he was "full of apprehension" for Robredo when he heard she had accepted the post.

"After listening to her brief but straightforward speech, I admired her for her bold decision. I admired her even more for her sincerity," said the prelate.

Bishop David assured Robredo of the support of church people in humanely addressing the problem of illegal drugs.

"The church is a partner of government in every sincere effort to solve the problem of illegal drugs firmly but humanely, to address it at its roots but respect human lives and human rights," he said.

"We are partners of government if it deals with addiction mainly as a health issue rather than a crime." 

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said he supports the vice president’s decision. "Her purpose for taking on this charge is clear, to save human lives and to make government accountable for its actions," he said.

Bishop Pabillo expressed support for the vice president's belief that rehabilitation is the right approach to solve the drug problem.

"The big drug dealers should be relentlessly pursued with the force of the law and not the small users merely killed," said the prelate. "I wish and pray for the success of this fresh approach to this old problem." 

A more balanced and humane approach to the drug problem will certainly have the church’s support, said Father Edwin Gariguez of Caritas Philippines.

He said Robredo has the same approach as the church "because we are against killings."

"We should have programs geared towards the rehabilitation of those using illegal drugs. On this aspect, we have a common approach," he said.

Father Gariguez said Robredo’s decision is "something positive" because a new direction was needed in the drug war. He cautioned Robredo, however, against falling into a "trap."

"The downside is this is likely a strategy of the administration to embarrass her, so she should be more prudent," said the priest. "But I think the vice president accepted the post because she has good intentions ... so let’s give it a try." 

The presidential palace welcomed Robredo's acceptance of the president's offer. "It shows she is smarter than her colleagues in the opposition who do not want her to succeed in serving the people," said presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.

Robredo said she would go after drug bigwigs, policemen who allegedly resold seized narcotics, and officials who smuggled in tons of methampetamine into the country.

"They ask me if I'm ready for this job. My question is: are you ready for me?" she said.

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