The public outrage over the attack by Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte on a sheriff serving a court’s demolition order has blown up into a national issue involving abuse of power of elected local officials claiming autonomy from the central government.
What started as an attack on an officer of the court performing a judicial duty escalated into a full-blown controversy after Sheriff Abe Andres did the incredible thing of apologizing to the mayor, who had beaten him up after he refused her request to stay for two hours the demolition of squatter shanties in Agdao District.
The violent action by the mayor was caught live by TV cameras, establishing beyond doubt the fact of the assault on an officer of the court.
Mayor Duterte and her father, former Mayor and now Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, have turned the tables on the victim of official violence by making Andres apologize.
The Dutertes made it appear they were the offended party, not the sheriff.
It is not uncommon in the law of the jungle of the Philippine judicial system and in the relationship between powerful officials and weak bureaucrats that the latter end up the “lawbreakers,” as the more powerful enjoy impunity from prosecution and accountability.
The Dutertes took refuge behind a false populist argument that the mayor had intervened to stop a demolition notice issued by a judge on the claim that she wanted to avert a riot by angry squatters. They claimed the sheriff was unreasonable in not granting a two-hour stay of execution.
Sara Duterte further claimed she had rushed to the scene to stop the demolition after distributing relief goods to flood victims, as part of her duties to her constituents and as a manifestation of her compassion for the victims of calamities.
That is cheap populist posturing.
On the offensive
The Dutertes have now gone on an offensive to justify their violent actions and mobilize public opinion in their constituency in Davao.
The PR campaign seeks to turn the issue into a referendum approving their actions before criminal action is started by the national authorities.
Whether these claims are valid excuses or whether the sheriff’s manner of executing the demolition order justified Sara Duterte’s flare-up, it is an inescapable fact that she faces possible criminal and administrative action for assaulting an officer of the court.
Being a public official, she cannot escape accountability for acts of violence related to the discharge of her official duties—acts she can be proceeded against by either her victim, by the Department of Justice, Department of the Interior and Local Government or Supreme Court for contempt of court.
She also risks disciplinary action by the Judicial and Bar Council, of which she is a member as a lawyer.
It’s up to these institutions to take action to teach her and her political clan a lesson that abuse of power is intolerable in a society that proclaims its adherence to the rule of law and eschews the violent impulses of officials whose egos are bruised by people who refuse to obey their demands.
Sara Duterte is on leave and her father, Rodrigo Duterte, acts in her absence and has ably taken up the cudgels on her behalf. He claims it was only proper for the sheriff to apologize, saying the demolition was “illegal, the sheriff was not supposed to be there.”
The elder Duterte said that under Republic Act No. 7279, local governments are required to give a 30-day notice for evictions. Assuming this to be correct, it should be asked, who gave the mayor the right and the power to summarily punish other officials for acts involving discharge of their duties.
To understand where the Dutertes are coming from, it is important to know that they belong to a class of local officials who believe they have local autonomy powers that put them above the national law. They rule their provincial jurisdictions with their own set laws, which make them unaccountable to the law of the land.
The Ampatuan warlords of Maguindanao belong to this category. They operate under the state of mind that their local autonomy has given them the impunity to abuse their power.
The Dutertes are now making a case for this dangerous doctrine in their populist campaign for an informal referendum in Davao.
Barangay captains of Davao City have published a manifesto of support for Sara Duterte. It says the governance of the elected leaders of Davao has been “put to a test.” It adds that the people of Davao have chosen a leader who has been “defending the safety and welfare of the poor and vulnerable.”
This manifesto takes off from the creed of rule practiced by Rodrigo Duterte when he was mayor. Under his leadership, the city claims to have experienced relative peace and stability. Its crime rate dropped dramatically, prompting tourist organizations to boast that Davao “is the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia.”
He was, however, criticized by human rights groups for supposedly tolerating extrajudicial killings of criminals allegedly by Davao death squads. He denied direct involvement in those killings.
A human rights website, midfield.wordpress.com., reports a statement attributed to Duterte in February 2009: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”
Abuse of power
Human rights organizations report that Duterte and other local officials have continued to deny the existence of any death squads. But in recent years, mayors and officials of other cities “have made statements justifying similar killings in their own cities.”
Davao City “is seen by some as a model for fighting crime,” according to the report. Human Rights Watch, based in New York, believed such killings had continued and perpetrators enjoyed “impunity largely because of the tolerance of, and in some cases, outright support from local authorities.”
It is not far-fetched to argue that the violent actions of Mayor Sara Duterte take a leaf from the culture of impunity engendered by the model set by ex-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.
The Davao community’s approval of the Duterte model of strongman rule does not wipe out the illegality of the assault on the officer of the court, no matter how offensive his action in serving the demolition order was to the Dutertes.
The attack was an assault on the entire judicial system.
Abuse of power is the underlying issue in this episode.