It is significant that human rights lawyer Romeo T. Capulong died at 77 just as the nation was preparing to mark the 40th anniversary of the declaration of martial law. He will be laid to rest today, with the nation still in the throes of remembering that dark era in our history which he so vigorously resisted and helped end, working hard later so that it would not be repeated. Like Paul the Apostle, it can well be said of him: “He fought the good fight.”
Capulong was the pioneer of public interest law in the Philippines. According to his colleagues and admirers, he was that “rare gem,” a good lawyer who did not put his skills at the service of moneyed clients but, instead, employed them to win justice for the poor and the oppressed. Starting as a young legal adviser in the Nueva Ecija government in 1969, he became sufficiently well-known in the province to seek, and win, a seat in the Constitutional Convention. In the ConCon, his dedication to the plight of landless farmers became evident; he introduced provisions addressing the monopoly of land ownership. But perhaps the highlight of his legal career was as lawyer in a class suit by close to 10,000 victims of human rights abuse during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.
He himself was hounded by the Marcos regime in the late 1970s, forcing him to flee to the United States where he sought and was granted political asylum—one of the first of such approvals by the American government that later set a precedent for leaders exiled by the dictatorship. In the United States, he continued his human rights law practice, founding and heading the Philippine Center for Immigrant Rights as well as the Filipino Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The latter documented human rights violations committed under martial law and established collaboration between human rights groups in the Philippines and the United States. As a result of his exile, he became a member of the New York Bar Association; he kept his membership up to his death.
With the downfall of Marcos, Capulong contributed to deepening the quality of the restored democracy by running for the Senate (he lost) and becoming the legal counsel of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines in its peace negotiations with the government. Although the talks foundered, Capulong remained committed to the peace process and continued to sit as legal counsel of the NDFP. Meanwhile, he continued his public-interest law practice, offering legal services to the victims of abuse and injustice. He handled the case of Singapore-based overseas Filipino worker Flor Contemplacion, as well as the case of “comfort women” forced into sex slavery by Japanese forces during World War II. He became the counsel of the victims of the Payatas garbage crash in 2000 that killed more than 200 people. During the Arroyo administration, he handled the rebellion charges against six party-list lawmakers and the criminal charges against 72 Southern Tagalog activists. He institutionalized alternative law by founding the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers and the Public Interest Law Center, which provide legal services to the poor.
Perhaps the peak of Capulong’s legal career would be his election as judge of the International Criminal Tribunal. He was elected at a particularly difficult time as the court was holding the prosecution and trial of, as its minutes said, “persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.” In short, he became a member of the tribunal that looked into the appalling incidents of ethnic cleansing and genocide that took place after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Upon his election to the court, the United Nations secretary general called Capulong “the Philippines’ leading human rights lawyer” and “the nation’s pioneer in international humanitarian and public interest law, developmental legal aid, class action litigation, and criminal defense.”
His election to the UN court reaffirmed his standing as a legal pundit. But he will be best remembered as the people’s lawyer, the counsel of victims scarred by martial law, the lawyer of scavengers of the garbage dump, the defender of social pariahs. A legal giant and social reformer, Romeo T. Capulong has left a shining legacy of justice for the poor and the oppressed. Truly, he was the champion of the people.