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Duterte urges Congress to 'fast-track' impeachment of top judge

Philippine leader's call comes after Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno hinted he might be behind moves to sack her.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has told members of parliament they must "fast-track" the impeachment of the country's top judge after she hinted that he might be behind the moves to sack her.

Maria Lourdes Sereno, chief justice of the Philippines, a critic of the president's deadly crackdown on drugs,  has been accused of concealing her wealth before she was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2012.

Sereno denies the claim, and in a speech on Monday, she asked Duterte to explain the filing of a petition by Solicitor General Jose Calida asking the Supreme Court to declare her appointment as chief justice illegal - a move separate to her possible impeachment trial.

"Mr. President, if you really didn't have anything to do with this, please explain why Solicitor General Calida, who reports to you, filed the quo warrant petition. Surely, you must explain to the people why this unconstitutional act?" Sereno said, according to local media.

In response, Duterte, who has always denied having a hand in the effort to remove her, said Sereno is "bad" for the country and should be removed from her post, even if by force.

"I'm putting you [Sereno] on notice that I am now your enemy and you have to be out of the Supreme Court," he told reporters on Monday, calling on House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez - a key ally - to "kindly fast-track the impeachment" of Sereno.

"I held my temper before because she's a woman," he said. "This time I'm asking the congressmen and the Speaker: 'Do it now. Cut out the drama, or else I will do it for you'."

Referring to Sereno, he said: "If it calls for your forced removal, I will do it."

Sereno, the Philippines' first female chief justice, was appointed by Duterte's predecessor.

Her supporters say she is being targeted for criticising Duterte's controversial anti-drugs campaign and for voicing concern about human rights and the rule of law in the East Asian nation.

Tomasito Villarin, an opposition politician, said Duterte's call on parliamentarians to sack Sereno "clearly manifests his totalitarian nature and abhorrence to democratic values", according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The pair first clashed in 2016 when she criticised his order that judges whom he linked to the illegal drugs trade turn themselves in as part of his crackdown

Duterte accused Sereno last year of allowing herself to be used by his political opponents to discredit his government.

Her impeachment hearings are likely to take place next month when Congress reconvenes, while the Supreme Court petition will be heard on Tuesday.

Last month, a committee of the lower chamber found "probable cause" to impeach Sereno.

If two-thirds of the 297-member house, which is dominated by Duterte's political allies, support the finding, the case goes to trial in the Senate.

Senator Leila de Lima, another Duterte critic, was detained last year on drug charges after she led a probe into alleged extrajudicial killings during Duterte's crackdown on drugs.

Police say they have killed roughly 4,000 drug suspects, but rights groups allege the actual number is three times higher.

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