MANILA: Philippine lawmakers have voted to slash annual funding for the nation's human rights commission to just $20 in response to its investigations into President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly drug war, authorities said Wednesday.
The House of Representatives action is the latest part of what critics say is a campaign by Duterte and his allies to silence opposition to the crackdown, which has claimed thousands of lives and led rights groups to warn of a crime against humanity.
The House, one of two chambers of the Philippine Congress, cut the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) allotment to 1,000 pesos (about $20) in the 3.8-trillion-peso national budget bill that it passed on second reading late Tuesday.
During the House budget debates, 119 lawmakers voted to approve the P1,000 budget for the CHR. Only 32 lawmakers voted against it.
The decision of the House to gut the CHR budget from the proposed P649.48 million (about $13 million, or Dh48 million, inclusive of retirement and life insurance program) down to P1,000 apparently was the result of the House leadership making good his word to give the commission, long critical of the administration’s war on drugs, a measly budget, which would render it ineffective in its operations next year.
"This leads us on a direct path to dictatorship," Senator Francis Pangilinan, leader of the Liberal Party, the country's main opposition group, said in a statement Wednesday.
The commission is one of several independent government bodies set up by the Philippine constitution to check the power of the executive department, which controls the country's police and military forces.
The body has been investigating some of the deaths of more than 3,800 narcotics suspects killed by police and other drug enforcement agencies in what they have described as "legitimate" operations.
The drug crackdown has triggered wider violence with thousands of other people having been killed in unexplained circumstances. Rights groups accuse authorities of running vigilante death squads, but the government denies this.
The budget bill has to be passed separately by the Senate, and Pangilinan vowed to block the House version.
"We will not allow this to pass in the Senate even if this means the 2018 budget will not be passed," Pangilinan said.
Independent Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former Philippine police chief, told DZMM radio in an interview that the Senate version of the budget bill had recommended 678 million pesos for the rights body.
Approval or veto
If the Senate and House pass differing versions of a bill, the two bodies meet to write a final version that will then be ratified by both chambers and signed into law or vetoed by the Philippine president.
Duterte has vowed to kill tens of thousands of criminals to rid the country of illegal drugs, and has said he would not allow any soldier or police to go to prison for helping him prosecute the campaign.
The drug war remains popular in a citizenry fed up by high crime, according to independent polls, and critics have faced the wrath of Duterte supporters.
One of its top critics, Senator Leila de Lima of the Liberal party, was arrested early this year and charged with abetting the illegal drug trade in her previous post as justice minister.