ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro was grieving over the death of her father early this month when she was jarred by a video of former president Rodrigo Duterte seemingly threatening to kill her and other “communists” during his weekly television program in Davao City.
Castro was in a funeral home in Quezon City on Oct. 11 when someone sent her the link to a clip of Duterte making the threat on his “Gikan sa masa, para sa masa” (From the masses, for the masses) program on SMNI television a day earlier.
She was frightened when she heard Duterte say, “You, France, I want to kill all you communists,” Castro, 57, told CoverStory.ph on Tuesday after filing a criminal complaint of grave threats against the ex-president.
“I was nervous and afraid,” she said. “That was what I first felt on top of my emotions in the middle of the wake for my father.”
Her 83-year-old dad, Santiago Castro, died on Oct. 6 of respiratory failure.
“I know that whatever Duterte says, he will do,” the lawmaker said to explain her fears. “We saw that during his bloody war on drugs. We experienced that when he was the president because I know he has the capacity to kill.”
In the complaint she filed at the Quezon City prosecutor’s office, Castro said Duterte’s threat made her “immensely fearful for my life, safety and security” and also for her family.
She dismissed statements by Duterte defenders that it was just how the former president spoke—with much exaggeration.
Castro said she and the other members of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives had always been a target of Duterte’s Red-tagging, or the labelling of individuals and organizations as members or supporters of the communist insurgency, making them open targets of reprisals by state-supported armed groups.
“This time it’s different because there was a direct threat to my life,” she said in the interview. “He named me as one of those he wanted to kill. So, this is not the same vilification and Red-tagging that we have been receiving.”
In her complaint, Castro said Duterte’s Red-tagging was “factually baseless and clearly malicious” but that she could not just dismiss them as jokes or benign threats in view of the many victims of extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests and forced disappearances of people who had been labelled as communists or rebel sympathizers.
She cited at least four teacher-unionists she personally knew and had worked with who were killed after being Red-tagged.
Tony La Viña, one of her lawyers, said the criminal complaint they had filed was the first against Duterte in the Philippines after he stepped down at noon on June 30 last year and lost presidential immunity from suit “for everything he does after that and for everything he did during his presidency.”
It was also “historic” in that it was a member of the House who had filed the first criminal charge against the “former very powerful president,” said La Viña, who is president of the Movement Against Disinformation (MAD).
Duterte, 78, is being investigated by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in the alleged extrajudicial killing of thousands of victims of his war on drugs starting from the time he was mayor of Davao City until March 2019, when the withdrawal of the Philippines from the Rome Statute which created the tribunal took effect. He ordered the withdrawal a year earlier.
Former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who had filed one of the complaints against Duterte in the ICC, also submitted a recording of the former president admitting, in the same SMNI program, that he had used intelligence funds for assassinations in Davao, indicating that the targets were both suspected rebels and criminals.
“I really had them killed. That’s the truth,” Duterte said.
Sara’s confidential funds
Castro said she drew Duterte’s ire for scrutinizing the confidential funds of Vice President Sara Duterte, his daughter.
Castro and the Makabayan bloc had relentlessly inquired into the 2024 budget request for confidential funds of P500 million by the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and another P150 million for the Department of Education, which the Vice President concurrently heads. Sara Duterte’s request for the same amounts for this year breezed through Congress in 2022.
As the lawmakers probed into the confidential funds, the Commission on Audit reported that P125 million was spent by the OVP in just 11 days in December 2022.
Castro, her group and other opponents of confidential funds questioned why such allocations should go to agencies not involved in defense and security in the first place. The Makabayan’s position was even to abolish confidential funds altogether and use the money for health and social services.
The controversy created sufficient groundswell to move the House majority to decide to scrap the total P650 million in confidential funds requested by the Vice President for 2024 in addition to P610 million allocated to the Department of Agriculture, Department of Information and Communications Technology, and Department of Foreign Affairs.
The total amount of P1.26 billion in confidential funds that was removed from the five offices was realigned to the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency and the Philippine Coast Guard—agencies directly concerned with monitoring Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
In his TV program, Duterte said he had told his daughter to be “frank” about what she planned with her secret funds. He said she had told him that she wanted to use the funds to revive the ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps) program.
He said he told his daughter: “Pero ang una mong target d’yan [sa] intelligence fund mo, kayo, ikaw, France, kayong mga komunista ang gusto kong patayin.” (But the first target of your intelligence fund is you, France, I want to kill all you communists.)
‘Most rotten institution’
Apparently smarting from the scrapping of his daughter’s confidential funds, Duterte then lambasted the House, calling it the “most rotten institution” for handing out pork barrel funds, and accusing Speaker Martin Romualdez of engineering the attacks against the Vice President as part of a supposed plan to seek the presidency in 2028.
Romualdez is president of the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD), the party that took Sara Duterte under its wing when she agreed to be the running mate of then presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the 2022 national elections.
The Vice President resigned as vice president of Lakas-CMD on May 19, two days after former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, her ally, was removed by Romualdez as the senior deputy speaker.
In a joint statement issued after Duterte made his remarks, the major political parties comprising the House criticized him for maligning it and for threatening one of its members.
“We call upon the former President and all parties involved to avoid making threats or insinuating harm against any member of the House or the institution itself,” they said in a statement on Oct. 14.
In addition to Lakas-CMD, the other parties were Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan, Nationalist People’s Coalition, Nacionalista Party and National Unity Party. The Partylist Coalition Foundation also signed the statement.
Castro thanked the political parties for coming to her defense and for standing up to the former president, the same parties that vigorously supported his administration. She said their stance was unexpected.
“I was surprised that those who had supported Duterte spoke up against what he did and protected our institution,” Castro said. “This is really unprecedented.”
Under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the Revised Penal Code punishment of six months imprisonment for grave threats could be raised to six years in prison, plus a fine of up to P100.000.
But La Vina said the case is not about seeking a particular penalty. “This is about accountability. President Duterte has gotten away from so many things,” he said, adding that Castro was standing up for other lawmakers and ordinary citizens.
Despite her fears that Duterte could make good on his threat because he still has “a lot of resources and political influence,” Castro said she had “no second thoughts” about filing the case against him.
“This will be an eye-opener to others like me who have suffered injustice or had been threatened, even the families of the victims of Duterte. That’s why I did not hesitate,” she said. “I believe this culture of impunity on the part of the former president must end.”
Castro also affirmed her faith in the judiciary and said she was willing to wait to attain justice: “I still have not lost hope that our judicial system will favor me.”