Lawyers in the crosshairs
For many Filipino lawyers, these are the worst of times to practice law in the Philippines.
On the night of Feb. 28, a lone gunman barged into the office of prominent 73-year-old lawyer Bayani Dalangin and shot him in front of his clients. Dalangin, described as “a good, brilliant and respected Ecijano lawyer,” was rushed to the Talavera General Hospital but was declared dead on arrival.
Just nine days earlier, on Feb. 19, Fredric Santos, the suspended legal chief of the Bureau of Corrections, who testified in the Senate hearings on the GCTA (good conduct time allowance)-for-sale scandal, was gunned down in broad daylight by two assailants as he was waiting in his car for his daughter to come out of her school in Muntinlupa City. He died on the spot.
And so, they became the 47th and 48th lawyers killed since the start of the Duterte administration in 2016. Not a single conviction has resulted from these killings, and this has rightly raised the alarm bells of human rights and lawyers associations, who have condemned the increasing number of violent attacks against lawyers and the worsening climate of impunity in the country that has undermined the proper functioning of the country’s justice system.
The London-based International Bar Association (IBA), the world’s leading organization of international legal practitioners, bar associations, and law societies, expressed its concern and scored the Philippine government for doing hardly enough to arrest the bloodbath.
“These killings are a great threat to an individual’s right to life, to a free and fair trial before an independent judiciary, and also to a lawyers’ ability to undertake their work without threat of persecution,” the IBA stressed in its Feb. 26 letter to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).
It challenged the IBP to be “resolute in its support of the rule of law and human rights, and outspoken in the defense of the lives and safety of judges and lawyers, and their capacity to discharge their constitutional functions.”
The IBP’s seeming impotence against the targeted killings of its members didn’t escape the attention of the IBA Human Rights Institute (HRI), which pointedly asked the organization what actions and steps it has taken to address the unabated killings under President Duterte’s administration.
“Are there any legal proceedings initiated by the Bar against the President, the police or any other branch of state?” asked IBAHRI cochairs Hon. Michael Kirby and Anne Ramberg.
The administration’s dismal human rights record will once again come under closer scrutiny as the UN Human Rights Committee reviews this month the Philippines’ compliance with its international human rights obligations. Lawyers for Lawyers (L4L), a Netherlands-based nongovernmental organization, submitted to the committee in January this year a list of issues to inform it of the “highly alarming and threatening” situation of lawyers in the Philippines and their “oppressive working environment.”
It concluded that the Philippine government “fails to fully respect and ensure the guarantees for the proper functioning of lawyers” due to four main reasons: interference with the independence of the legal profession, particularly those representing people accused of terrorist or drug-related crimes; the practice of labeling lawyers and lawyers’ organizations as “communists,” “terrorists” or “leftists” for them to be perceived as “enemies” of the State; surveillance of lawyers and lawyers’ groups; and the country’s culture of impunity.
L4L noted how Benjamin Ramos, a founding member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers and lawyer for the families of nine slain sugarcane farmers in Sagay, Negros Occidental, was red-tagged in a poster released by the Philippine police in April 2018. He was shot dead by riding-tandem assailants a few months later, in November.
Has the Duterte administration been moved to action? There is little assurance that the grim situation will improve anytime soon. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that he would direct the task force on extrajudicial killings to conduct its own probe on Dalangin, for example, if it was proven that his death was connected to his work. Otherwise, the police would be left to do its own probe—which is as good as consigning the case to limbo, as has happened with the tens of thousands of other “deaths under inquiry” in its files.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, for his part, merely retorted with talking points when asked about the issue: The government does not “tolerate any act of violence,” he said; “Hindi pwede kay Presidente ’yon (The President does not approve of that).”
All three, by the way — Guevarra, Panelo, and President Duterte — are also lawyers.
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