On Jan. 23, the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, groups of law practitioners all over Europe held protest actions to decry the continuing human rights violations committed against lawyers, judges and even law students in the Philippines.
“Documented reports show no abatement, but an apparent increase in the number of attacks.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – On Jan. 23, the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, groups of law practitioners all over Europe held protest actions to decry the continuing human rights violations committed against lawyers, judges and even law students in the Philippines.
A petition signed by three European lawyers groups called on President Aquino to end impunity by prosecuting perpetrators of rights violations. The appeal had long been made to the Philippine government.
“But in the last year, the situation has again deteriorated,” said the petition, signed by the European Democratic Lawyers, the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and the World Human Rights and the European Bar Human Rights Institute.
The European lawyers also called on the Aquino government “to guarantee safety for legal practitioners, as provided in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.” The Philippines was present when the UN adopted the document in 1990.
The Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provides that governments of member states shall ensure that lawyers “are able to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference, are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad; and shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”
The petition also called for the immediate release of lawyers who are being detained in performance of their duties.
The groups said the government must even publicly recognize the work of human rights defenders, including lawyers, and to impose sanctions on public officials and politicians who harass and stigmatize them.
Simultaneous protest actions by the three groups were held in Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.
Attacks on attorney
From 1977 to present, there were 69 lawyers and judges killed while 101 were threatened or harassed. The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) noted that there are 35 lawyers under surveillance and 37 maliciously labeled from 2001 to the present, which is more than in the previous years.
Edre Olalia, secretary general of the NUPL, noted in a statement that since 2001, 22 percent of lawyers killed came from the ranks of those involved in human rights cases.
“The records would show that under the present administration of President Aquino, the situation appears to have deteriorated. Documented reports show no abatement, but in fact, an apparent increase in the number of attacks,” Olalia said.
In Manila, the NUPL met with Theodore Te, spokesman of Supreme Court, to discuss means to protect lawyers. They submitted documented cases of attacks on lawyers.
Asked how the discussion went, Maria Catherine Dannug-Salucon, a lawyer based in Cordillera and among those harassed by state security forces, said Te suggested to the NUPL to collaborate with other lawyers’ groups to create a mechanism to make the judiciary proactive in addressing the issue.
Killed and harassed under Aquino
European lawyers, in their petition, said that Aquino’s pronouncements not to tolerate killings and enforced disappearances and the strengthening of the judicial system “seem to have been hollow promises” as evident in new attacks documented against lawyers.
In the last two years, the NUPL has documented the killing of the following lawyers and judges: Rodolfo Felicio, Reynerio Estacio Sr., Noel Archival, John Mark Espera, Ian Vela Cruz, Jubian Achas, Sulpicio Landicho, Lazaro Gayo and Cristobal Fernandez.
In Feb. 18 2014, Archival was killed in an ambush along with his security aide. His killing is believed to be in retaliation for a complaint he filed before the Office of the Ombudsman. Some 10 days later, Judge Estacio of Zamboanga Regional Trial Court Branch 14 was killed.
Fernandez was killed on Aug. 8, 2014 in San Fabian, Pangasinan by motorcycle-riding men. Two weeks later, Felicio, was killed on Aug. 24, when gunmen peppered the campsite where he and his urban poor clients were staying in Tanay, Rizal.
Espera, who lawyers for political detainees, was killed on Aug. 31, 2013 in Hamtic, Antique province. Gayo was killed in Agoo, La Union on Oct. 30, 2012.
Landicho and Vela Cruz were both killed by motorcycle-riding men on on Nov. 14, 2012 and May 17, 2013, respectively.
Others, the lawyers group said, were also threatened and labeled as supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines or were slapped with false charges.
Salucon, for her part, said the surveillance and harassment against her have subsided, following strong condemnations on such attacks. However, she added that her clients who are in detention, even those whose cases are not political, are being interrogated by suspected military intelligence agents, who asked questions about her.
Meanwhile, the investigation in the case of the killing of paralegal William Buggatti, who worked closely with Salucon, has not budged even though the perpetrators were already identified as a member of a paramilitary group deployed in their community.
Olalia was among those charged by the Quezon City police for holding a “rally without a permit” during Aquino’s State of the Nation Address in 2013. He was also red-tagged and has been under surveillance for handling human rights cases. Jose Begil was charged for participating in an anti-pork barrel rally held in Surigao City on Sept. 21, 2013.
Vicente Jayme Topacio, an NUPL member and a professor at the University of Santo Tomas, was harassed by a motorcycle-riding men while stuck in traffic. He provides legal services to trade union workers and is one of the lawyers under surveillance.
In the Bicol region, NUPL officers Bartolome Rayco and Madonna Gay Escio were hustled and arrested by the police when they intervened in the dispersal of a rally of activists in front of a local power utility company on Feb. 24, 2014. Rayco was charged with coercion and malicious mischief and was consequently released.
The law office of Michael Ajoc was strafed on Dec. 11, 2012 in Dipolog City. The NUPL, in its report, believed that the strafing was intended to harass him.
Apart from the attacks on individuals, the NUPL was also referred to as an “enemy” by Army chief Noel Coballes in 2013 after the group issued a statement on the promotion of Lt. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, one of the ranking military officials involved in the illegal arrest and torture of the 43 health workers in 2010.
Lawyers Concepcion Brizuela, a founding member of the NUPL, and Cynthia Oquendo, were among the 58 killed in the infamous Ampatuan massacre in 2009, of which 32 victims were journalists and media workers.
Five years since the carnage, the trial is still on the bail proceedings against Zaldy Ampatuan, one of the primary suspects. The Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 even granted the bail of 41 accused and dismissed one petition for bail.
Outside the Supreme Court, community health workers, human rights and labor groups were among those who held a rally, calling for an end to attacks against peoples’ lawyers.
In a statement, human rights group Karapatan condemned the attacks against lawyers and human rights defenders. Political belief and pursuance of causes of lawyers whose clients belong to the poor and the marginalized, the group said, “should not and can never be reasonable grounds for such heinous violations inflicted upon them.”
“The climate of impunity in the Philippine justice system must end and the perpetrators of these gruesome murders and abuses must be brought to justice, “ Karapatan said.
Ely Estropigan, president of the All UP Workers Union, said that rank-and-file employees are thankful that there are peoples’ lawyers whom they can reach out to. Back in 2013, five workers of the Philippine General Hospital faced administrative charges for supposedly abandoning their posts when they staged a “silent protest” shortly after the appointment of Director Jose Gonzales.
Carlos Montemayor of the Public Interest Law Center, also a member of the NUPL, was among the employees’ counsel.
“They are easy to talk to. They are not intimidating. They work hard not just to defend rank-and-file employees but also to educate us of our rights,” Estropigan said.
One of the Morong 43, Del Obera, said lawyers such as the late Romeo Capulong, and NUPL lawyers Olalia and Julian Oliva Jr., who were among their frequent visitors, were a source of inspiration while they were in detention.
“They will even crack a joke or two to ease our stress,” Obera told Bulatlat.com during the rally, “Even if they were given limited time to consult with us, they really made time to ask how we were doing, if we were being harassed.”
Those small gestures, she added, were heartwarming. “They never left us,” Obera said.
Rita Baua of Bayan said that while there are lawyers who are working for the interest of the people, there are also those who are serving the interests of big mining corporations and other anti-people policies, such as the fare increase of MRT.
Peoples’ lawyers, she added, have been living “simple lifestyle,” long before Pope Francis urged Filipinos to do so.
Olalia said, “government must simply do its job: protect its citizens, categorically condemn these attacks on lawyers as human rights defenders; seriously and credibly investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators; and uphold human rights.”
He said that the violations are not just on the individual lawyer but also on the “rights and interests of the mostly poor and oppressed in our country.”