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Politics

Philippine anti-graft office feels heat as Duterte sacks deputy

President continues clampdown on enemies and installs friendly faces

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte posing with a Galil sniper rifle.    © Reuters

MANILA -- The independence of Philippines' anti-corruption office has come under pressure days before its new czar assumes the post, after President Rodrigo Duterte dismissed the deputy ombudsman for disclosing a probe into his personal wealth.

The dismissal, revealed on Tuesday, comes after the removal of a chief justice who was critical of Duterte's war on drugs in May, signaling that the president is keeping up pressure on his political enemies.

Samuel Martires, who was appointed ombudsman late last week and will take office on Monday, withheld comments on the dismissal of Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang, local media reported.

Duterte's executive secretary fired Carandang for "graft and corruption" and "betrayal of public trust" when he revealed in a TV interview in September last year that Duterte and his family were being investigated over their wealth. The probe was dropped after the Anti-Money Laundering Council declined to cooperate.

Carandang's TV interview, however, infuriated Duterte who has repeatedly denied having any hidden wealth. The firebrand leader at the time told Carandang to "pray" and suggested that he would go after the official if the Philippines plunges into chaos. Duterte's supporters then filed administrative charges against Carandang with the Office of the President.

In January, the president's office suspended Carandang but former Ombudsman Conchita Caprio Morales defied the order, saying that Duterte had no disciplinary jurisdiction over the deputy ombudsman.

Morales, a feisty former Supreme Court justice who publicly criticized Duterte, stepped down last week after completing her fixed seven-year term. When Duterte retaliated and threatened to set up a commission to probe corruption at the anti-graft agency, Morales said: "Sorry, Mr. President. This office will not be intimidated." She went on to add: "If the president has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear."

Martires, Duterte's appointment, is a former justice at the Sandiganbayan, a special court focused on corruption cases. Duterte later appointed him to the Supreme Court. Martires was also in the same fraternity as Duterte during their days at San Beda College of Law in Manila. Given such links between the two, critics have questioned his impartiality, citing his previous decisions that aligned with the Duterte administration.

Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales just retired in late July.    © Reuters

However, Martires vowed to be independent: "I will not allow myself to be used by politicians to prosecute their political enemies. I don't have that persecution complex."

His critics will be closely watching how he will treat the president's dismissal of Carandang.

On Thursday, Senator Antonio Trillanes from the opposition, who had accused Duterte of amassing ill-gotten wealth, condemned Carandang's dismissal.

"Not only is this illegal and unconstitutional since the Office of Ombudsman is an autonomous constitutional body, it is also highly unethical to fire the very same person investigating him," he said in a statement.

"Up to now, Duterte cannot face this serious allegation about his hidden wealth amounting to billions of pesos of deposits; so, he is resorting to cover-up and harassment tactics."

Carandang is among the officials who faced charges or were sidelined after clashing with Duterte.

Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who criticized Duterte's brutal war on drugs that has left thousands dead, was removed from office in May. Duterte had tagged her his "enemy."

Senator Leila de Lima, a former head of the Commission on Human Rights and secretary of the Department of Justice who investigated drug-related killings in Davao City when Duterte was still mayor, has been jailed for alleged drug conspiracy.

Last year, Vice-President Leni Robredo lost her cabinet post after criticizing Duterte's drug war.

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