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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Supreme Court ousted its chief justice, a critic of the country's authoritarian president, in an unprecedented vote Friday by fellow magistrates that she and hundreds of protesters called unconstitutional and a threat to democracy.
Court spokesman Theodore Te said eight of 14 justices voted to grant a petition by the government's solicitor-general to remove Maria Lourdes Sereno from the 15-member tribunal for allegedly failing to file statements of assets and liabilities as required by law. Sereno denies the allegation and refused to participate in the vote.
Sereno has earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte by speaking up for the respect of law and human rights at a time he has led a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands of suspects dead.
About 1,800 protesters gathered to support Sereno outside the court in Manila, where anti-riot police blocked an access road with trucks and iron railings to maintain order and separate a smaller group of anti-Sereno demonstrators.
Sereno is facing a separate impeachment bid in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte's allies. She has warned that the efforts by the Duterte administration to oust her are a threat to democracy, saying the petition that led to Friday's vote violates the constitution, which stipulates that top officials like her can only be removed by impeachment.
"Respondent Maria Lourdes Sereno is now disqualified from and hereby adjudged guilty of unlawfully holding and exercising the office of the chief justice," Te told a news conference as he read the verdict. Sereno was ordered to explain in 10 days why she should not be sanctioned for allegedly discussing the complaint against her in public and "for casting aspersions and ill-motive to the members of the Supreme Court."
"This is more than a wake-up call. If we don't wake up now, it will really be the death of democracy and sometimes history is cruel," Roman Catholic priest and protest leader Robert Reyes told The Associated Press outside the court.
Once an independent judicial leader like Sereno, who acts as checks and balances to the executive branch of government, is ousted, "there will be no more balance of power. Duterte will be a virtual dictator so the institutions should really wake up," Reyes said.
Critics warned the court action would set a dangerous precedent and give the Duterte administration a legal weapon to muzzle dissent.
Duterte has sought the removal of Sereno and a top anti-graft prosecutor, Conchita Carpio-Morales, accusing them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.
Sereno angered Duterte after she disagreed with his efforts to take action against judges authorities linked to illegal drugs in 2016, saying the Supreme Court should be the one to punish erring judges.
Duterte said he had avoided getting involved in efforts to remove Sereno but got fed up.
"So I'm putting you on notice that I am now your enemy. And you have to be out of the Supreme Court," Duterte said in a speech last month, in which he said he requested lawmakers to "go into the impeachment right away.'"
The House Justice Committee said in March there was probable cause to impeach Sereno, accusing her of corruption, breach of public trust and other serious crimes. Six of Sereno's fellow justices testified against her in the hearings that started in September, exposing rifts in the high court.
Sereno has denied any wrongdoing.
International rights groups and local critics have accused Duterte of drifting toward authoritarianism after declaring martial law in the south amid a major attack by pro-Islamic State group militants last year. The five-month siege was quelled but martial law has been extended.