Showdown at the top of Philippines politics: What you need to know

Story highlights

  • Former hitman Edgar Matobato to testify again on Thursday
  • He previously accused President Rodrigo Duterte of heading the "Davao Death Squad"
  • The group has been linked to hundreds of killings in Davao City while Duterte was mayor

(CNN)The Philippines has been gripped by a political bout between the President, his biggest rival, with a special appearance by former world champion Manny Pacquiao.

Last week, Senator Leila De Lima called a hitman to testify before lawmakers that while, as mayor, President Rodrigo Duterte ran a "death squad" whose hundreds of victims included a justice department official who Duterte personally killed with an Uzi submachine gun.
    Duterte's office has denied all accusations against him.
    His supporters succeeded this week in dumping De Lima from her role on the inquiry, as Duterte continued to loudly defend his anti-drug war. On Tuesday he said he would tell EU officials who had criticized him "f**k you!"
    If all that sounds crazy... we haven't even got started.

    De Lima removed

    Senator Leila De Lima
    On Monday, De Lima was removed as chair of the Justice and Human Rights Committee by a vote in the Senate led by Manny Pacquiao.
    Critics have described her removal as a "reprisal" for her role in investigating Duterte's anti-drug war, which has so far claimed hundreds of lives amid accusations of extrajudicial killings by police.
    Following her ouster, De Lima herself has become the subject of an inquiry held by the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte's allies.

    Wait, Manny Pacquiao?

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    Yes, the former world champion boxer turned politician led the charge to unseat De Lima, saying the committee was being used to "pin down the administration."
    "It's not our intention to stop the investigation," Pacquiao told CNN. "(But) it's about investigation, not singling out one person."
    He said self-professed hitman Edgar Matobato would be invited to continue testifying, but argued that there were numerous "inconsistencies in his testimony" against Duterte.
    Pacquiao, a rising political star who is often discussed as a future Presidential candidate, is a firm ally of Duterte -- "he's a good friend of mine, from way back" -- and told CNN he supported the President's anti-drug policy.

    Duterte vs. De Lima

    While De Lima has long sought to have Duterte officially investigated over alleged death squad killings in Davao, and rights groups have denounced his apparent "impunity," he has stepped up his attacks on her in recent weeks.
    In a speech in August, Duterte called De Lima an "immoral woman" and a "robber," accusing her of having an affair with her driver and using him to collect drug payoffs.
    "If I were De Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I'd hang myself," he said.
    For her part, De Lima accused the President of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at her. "I'm still waiting for the sink."

    What are the accusations against De Lima?

    Flanked by armored police and granted immunity by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, former drug dealer Herbert Colanggo told the House committee Tuesday that the New Bilibid Prison was turned into a "Little Las Vegas" during De Lima's stint in the Justice Department under former President Benigno Aquino.
    Colanggo and two other witnesses testified that they delivered millions of pesos to De Lima or her staff, in return for political favors.

    How did she react?

    In a statement Tuesday, De Lima denounced the hearings as a "blatant exercise in harassment and persecution."
    She condemned the disclosure of her cellphone number and home address, both of which were provided by witnesses as supposed proof that they knew her.
    "(I have been) bombarded by text messages ... and phone calls from unknown persons, threatening me, harassing me, calling me the vilest of names," she said.

    What about Duterte?

    Duterte's office denies death squad claims
    Duterte's office denies death squad claims

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    The President -- who De Lima investigated when she was head of the Commission on Human Rights and he was Davao City mayor -- said he was De Lima's "favorite whipping boy."
    Speaking to supporters in Davao Tuesday, Duterte joked about the accusations against him.
    "Yes, I kill, that's true, but not that many. 1700? Maybe more like 1,004," he said.
    He said that when he was mayor, "it was very simple. I said get out of here -- if you're into drugs, murder for hire -- get out of here. This is true, I will kill you. And in the process I killed many upon my direction. There's no problem there."

    So what happens now?

    According to Pacquiao and new Human Rights Committee head Richard Gordon, the investigation into extrajudicial killings will proceed without De Lima.
    "De Lima was not ousted because of Matobato. She was ousted because many of the people of the Senate felt that objectivity was being lost," Gordon told CNN Philippines.
    He added that Matobato would be included in the next hearing, but would be asked only to testify on the recent spate of extrajudicial killings, not past incidents or allegations about the Davao Death Squad.