A voice silenced
He was taking a break from a day’s labor in behalf of a client who was a political prisoner. This was a task long familiar to Ben Ramos, 56, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL)-Negros, who had devoted many years of his life to giving voice to human rights victims and citizens in conflict with government, fighting for their rights and standing up to the powerful.
Late in the evening of Nov. 6, Ramos had stepped out of his house in Kabankalan City, bought some cigarettes and was smoking and chatting with the store owner when two men riding tandem on a motorcycle fired shots at the human rights lawyer. Ramos suffered four gunshot wounds and was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
At once, the NUPL and other human rights organizations expressed their outrage at the killing of Ramos. “We are shocked, devastated and enraged at the premeditated cold-blooded murder of our colleague and fellow people’s lawyer,” said the NUPL in a statement signed by Edre Olalia, president of the group, and other officers.
It is obvious from the descriptions offered by his colleagues and friends in the precarious profession of human rights lawyering that Ramos was not just a diligent and devoted lawyer, but a fine human being as well. The NUPL described him as “passionate, dedicated and articulate yet amiable and jolly.” And in language surprising in the usually “grim and determined” statements of activist groups, the NUPL later characterized Ramos as “our beloved, adorably husky-voiced zany Ben.” He was obviously much-liked.
Given his training and background as a lawyer, Ramos could very well have turned his attention to more lucrative pursuits, as have the majority of law graduates before him. Instead, Ramos was, said the lawyers’ group, “the ‘go-to’ pro-bono lawyer of peasants, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners and mass organizations in Negros.” It was a career choice that not only paid poorly, if at all, but also put him on the frontlines of confrontations—in picket lines, in courtrooms and detention centers—as he spoke up for his poor and powerless clients.
And while he chose to live up to the demands of his profession within the legal framework, to the government and to law enforcers he was part and parcel of the community of subversives, even ending up in a poster put up by the Philippine National Police identifying him as among the “personalities” of the underground armed movement.
But how could he have been “underground” when he did his work out in the open, speaking out as the public face of his impoverished and persecuted clients?
Ramos’ fate is tied up with scores of his colleagues in the imperiled field of human rights lawyering. The NUPL reveals that Ramos is the 34th lawyer killed just in the two years of the Duterte administration. “Excluding judges and prosecutors,” said the NUPL, Ramos is “the 24th member of the profession killed and the eighth in the Visayas.”
He was not alone in this risky endeavor, with colleagues viewed darkly and with a lot of suspicion by police, the military, vigilantes, skeptical media and online trolls and, of course, by government officials and vested interests like landlords and business owners inconvenienced by their work in thwarting injustice and defending the marginalized.
This is all a part of what Human Rights Watch calls “the impunity that has worsened under the administration of President Duterte.”
Certainly, the unchecked campaign of violence and death now gripping the land has and will have a chilling effect on everyone who dares speak out to condemn the killings of innocents and to give voice to the feelings of fear, apprehension, tension and despair that engulf many. But voices raised in defiance will not be silenced, at least for long.
“Who will defend the defenders?” asks the NUPL. Their answer: “Our clients will. The people and their various organizations will.” And they promise that “we the lawyers of the people will not be cowed, will not blink, will not retreat, we will not look the other way, and we will stand our ground. Yet we will close ranks. We will be there in the trenches in defense of the defenseless. There is no other choice.”
Human rights lawyers have spoken. What do we, the people, say?
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