The Justice department dropped all charges against the six after prosecutors admitted on 10 February that no evidence for their involvement in the alleged crimes existed.
Despite this reversal, the Justice Department has now announced that two other priests, Fr. Albert Alejo, S.J., and Fr. Flavie Villanueva, as well as nine lay catholics, would be charged with “conspiracy to commit sedition”.
These incidents are the latest chapter in a chain of dramatic claims and counterclaims stretching back to April last year. At that time, a pseudonymous figure known as “Bikoy” released a video alleging that a number of senior figures in the Duterte Administration, including President Duterte’s own son, were receiving millions of dollars of money from the drugs trade.
“Bikoy” later handed himself in to the police, retracted his claims, and asserted that his video was part of a conspiracy by a “shadow group”, composed of the sitting Vice-President, the Catholic Bishops and the opposition party. Despite the revelation that “Bikoy” had accused the previous government of exactly the same misdemeanors, charges of inciting sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice were placed against the six clerics and more than 30 members of the opposition in July of last year.
Maintaining their innocence throughout, the accused clerics received support from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, which stated that the accusations were "beyond belief". One of the accused, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, of the diocese of Caloocan, stated he would pray for “those who concocted the calumnies and lies and wish them peace,” and offered his support to the laity and priests recently charged with fresh offences.
The charges were seen by many as intimidation on the part of the Duterte administration, which has clashed repeatedly with the Church, particularly on Duterte’s violent prosecution of the “war on drugs” in the Philippines, in which more 20,000 have died, and for human rights violations. Unusually for the leader of such an overwhelmingly Catholic country, Duterte has been openly disrespectful of the Church and antagonistic towards the local hierarchy, even urging people to rob and kill Bishops in 2019.