By Ian Nicolas Cigaral, April 6 2019; Philippine Star

Image Credit to AFP (Agence France-Presse)

MANILA, Philippines — Five United States senators introduced a bipartisan resolution highlighting human rights concerns in the Philippines and urging the Duterte administration to respect freedom of expression.

US Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) this week filed the six-page resolution, which specifically raised the cases of detained Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima and Rappler CEO and veteran journalist Maria Ressa.

“Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines have been a stain on the country’s human rights record,” Markey said.

“But rather than working with lawmakers, journalists, and civil society in the Philippines to hold perpetrators for these crimes accountable, the Duterte government is turning the law against the very voices promoting the rights of the Philippine people,” he added.

“The Philippines is a close ally, but this bipartisan resolution makes it clear that the U.S. Congress seeks an immediate improvement in the government’s behavior and the end of efforts to weaponize the rule of law against brave individuals like Senator Leila de Lima and Maria Ressa,” he continued.

A fierce critic of the Duterte administration and its deadly anti-narcotic campaign, De Lima was arrested on Feb. 24, 2017 on what she called “trumped-up” drug charges that she said were part of a presidential vendetta.

The former Justice secretary turned lawmaker launched a Senate probe into alleged unlawful killings by the police under President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has left scores dead.

After being arrested in February on different charges and then freed on bail, Ressa was rearrested on March on charges that she and her colleagues at online news site Rappler violated rules on foreign ownership of media.

The high-profile journalist asserted that the cases against her and her company are political persecution over their coverage of the Duterte government, but Malacañang has repeatedly distanced itself from the cases against them.

US President Donald Trump shares Duterte’s antipathy toward media coverage and has voiced admiration for him, but the rest of the US government has generally still advocated freedom of the press.

Last month, a State Department spokesperson said Washington was “concerned” about Ressa’s arrest and called on the Philippines to respect freedom of the press.

“The Government of the Philippines needs to respect the fundamental human rights of its people,” Blackburn said.

“The ongoing extrajudicial killings and meritless imprisonment of Senator de Lima and Ms. Ressa are unconscionable. This bipartisan resolution makes it clear that while we value our relationship with the Philippines, the U.S. Congress expects to see real change to the current practices of the Duterte government,” she added. — Ian Nicolas Cigaral with a report from AFP