Gov’t must act to stop killings
Just when we thought we had turned the corner on a period marked by a frenzy of killings comes the brutal murder of a lawyer in Abra province last week, the third lawyer slain under the one-year-old Marcos administration.
Ma. Saniata Liwliwa Gonzales Alzate was gunned down while inside her car parked in front of her house on Thursday afternoon, in what Abra Gov. Dominic Valera described as a “merciless” killing. So brazen was the attack that the two motorcycle-riding assailants did not even bother to conceal their faces and were seen on CCTV doing the dastardly act.
The killing is even more despicable as Alzate, who was only 48 years old, was known for giving free legal services to indigent litigants—a “strong-willed lawyer, a defender of those in need, and a friend to many,” Valera said. Among those she had helped, according to reports, were a victim of alleged illegal arrest, detention, and torture by police officers, and the family of a teacher who was killed by a barangay chief. Alzate was president of the Abra chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
“She worked tirelessly both as a public interest lawyer and as a commissioner of Bar discipline. Her death is a tragedy as well for the good province of Abra and for the legal profession,” Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin said in a statement on Saturday. “Our law enforcement agencies will work relentlessly to bring to justice those behind this heinous act,” he vowed.
With such promise from no less than the executive secretary, a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court who also hails from Abra, hopes are high for a swift resolution of this chilling murder. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla also said over the weekend that authorities already have a lead on the perpetrators.
But the same hope should be rekindled for the two other lawyers killed under the new administration, as well as the many other unsolved cases, otherwise the death toll can only rise with the prevailing culture of violence and impunity.
According to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), 133 lawyers, judges, and prosecutors have been killed since the restoration of democracy in 1986, with a huge number—at least 59—murdered during the Duterte administration when the Red-tagging of government critics and rights workers became a government-sanctioned policy, and thousands were killed under a vicious drug war.
Even as the new administration spurned the Duterte drug war killings, the killing of three lawyers—among scores of suspected drug users and other victims—is one death too many. The Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao, for instance, said Alzate’s killing has a “haunting resemblance” to the case of UPLM’s vice chair, Juan Macababbad, who was also gunned down by motorcycle-riding men in front of his home in Surallah, South Cotabato, on Sept. 15, 2021, a case that remains unresolved. According to reports, only seven cases of such killings of lawyers and other members of the legal profession from 2004 to 2021 have led to the filing of charges.
The killings and attacks on members of the Bar and the bench prodded the Supreme Court in March 2021 to issue a strong statement condemning the assaults and directing all lower courts to help investigate them. “To assault the judiciary is to shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands. This cannot be allowed in a civilized society like ours. This cannot go undenounced on the Court’s watch,” it said.
The statement was prompted by letters and manifestations filed amid several cases of attacks on judges and lawyers, including those who questioned the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act. One such lawyer, Angelo Karlo Guillen of the NUPL, was stabbed with a screwdriver through his skull after he was attacked by men who took his case files.
The Supreme Court had long lobbied for protection for members of the judiciary, and those efforts bore fruit with the enactment of Republic Act No. 11691 or the Judiciary Marshals Act of 2021, which created the office that “shall be primarily responsible for the security, safety, and protection of the members, officials, personnel, and property of the judiciary, including the integrity of the courts and its proceedings.”
The body was also tasked with investigating allegations of corruption and other irregularities against members of the legal profession. But it remains to be seen how the office—for which the Supreme Court is asking for a P200 million budget for 2024—has achieved its goal.
That unknown assailants are still killing lawyers—or other personalities for that matter—despite all these pronouncements and concrete measures is a matter of grave concern that the government must address. One important step is to ensure that the cases are swiftly and properly prosecuted.
But unless the investigation ferrets out and punishes the masterminds and not just the motorcycle-riding gunmen, which is usually the case, such measures would hardly deter the commission of more of these killings.