‘Tserman’ Fred Gapuz
It was moving as it was inspiring. Last May 17, from late afternoon until midnight, members of various groups coming from different parts of Mindanao, converged at the Philippine Independent Church Cathedral in Cagayan de Oro City to pay their last respects and listen to eulogies given for the late Frederico Moreno Gapuz, the indefatigable “dean” of public interest lawyering in Mindanao.
“It’s the first time that I have seen such overwhelming and highest respect accorded to a person like him,” commented lawyer Beverly Musni, a longtime colleague in the human rights movement. Indeed, from the eulogies delivered during the nearly 8-hour “Parangal,” one can truly paint an inspiring and spirited mosaic on the life of the man fondly called “tserman,” “tatay” and “manong” by the many who knew him in the past 54 years as a “peoples’ lawyer.”
The tributes came from students too young to be his grandchildren, fellow lawyers, urban poor settlers, small entrepreneurs, activists, religious leaders of various faiths, politicians, media, and fellow septuagenarians who fought with him in several battles and struggles.
Even as a young man, Tserman Fred was a staunch nationalist. He opposed unequal laws and treaties, like the Philippine-American Parity Rights and the Mutual Defense Treaty that allowed the presence of US military bases in the Philippines.
He was tortured by his military captors and jailed seven times during the Marcos dictatorship. While many of his colleagues chose to be silent in the face of injustice and oppression, he joined and led civil rights advocacy groups, like the Movement for Civil Liberties, the Protestant Lawyers League of the Philippines (PLLP), the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and the Concerned Lawyers Union in Mindanao for Nationalism (Column). He also served as a member of the executive committee of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan)-Mindanao.
After the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, while many of his colleagues joined government or shifted to more lucrative corporate law practice, he continued his public interest lawyering, defending the rights of informal settlers, the Lumad, political prisoners, peasants and workers. Although he supported the class suits filed against the Marcoses, he refused to seek compensation for himself.
In July 2005, when the Arroyo administration-sponsored state of impunity was wrecking havoc across the country, Gapuz helped to organize the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), where he served as its founding chair until his death last May 12. In September 2007, he also helped to established the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), where he was elected its founding president and later president emeritus.
In its tribute, the NUPL paid the “Highest Honors and Salute to Our Dear Atty. Frederico Gapuz,” recalling that “His life was dedicated not only to providing legal service to the marginalized and oppressed sectors of society, but most importantly, provided strength and inspiration to legal practitioners and advocates who aspire to change society for the better. He believed that as lawyers, we must not always limit ourselves to the confines of the courts and our law offices, but we must be a vibrant part of the peoples’ movement outside.
“Despite his failing health, he gave a very inspiring welcome speech in the 2010 Conference of Lawyers in Asia Pacific (Colap) V and fired up everybody to do more for the peoples’ movement for change. He selflessly provided us with his analysis, insights, competence and wisdom honed by an uninterrupted tour of duty in selfless dedication to helping the exploited and the oppressed.
“NUPL’s 400 plus-strong membership is thankful to Tserman Fred for his contribution to the formation, continued existence and success of the organization, and for his untiring service to the people. We also remember him fondly for his amiability and characteristic sense of humor, even his playfulness. Yes, it was him who said that ‘Perhaps the body can only constrict my physical movement now, but it cannot curtail my indomitable will and spirit to serve those who are poor and marginalized by the law, hopefully until my last nicotine-laden breath.’
“He was in so many ways a shining light to lawyers, young and old, but mostly to the young who wanted to make a difference and give their lives and profession a great measure of relevance. He spoke with steadfastness and authority and disliked quibbling, always seeing the forests for the trees.
“We still hear Gapuz’s ringing visionary words ‘Law legitimizes this unequal, exploitative, inhumane social order. And it is our challenge as public interest lawyers to save what remains of the law for the benefit of our people’s human rights, as we envision a social order where equality is lived and does not merely exist as a concept in legalese.’
“Indeed, after living life to the fullest, Tserman Fred has rested his last case, winning it with a resounding decision from the people—lawyer Frederico Gapuz, a genuine peoples’ lawyer, will always live in the hearts of his colleagues and the people he has served so well. We will miss you in the battlefield but we shall carry on.”
Truly, in his service to the people for the past 54 years, Tserman Fred was a genuine peoples’ lawyer, a true patriot, a modern hero of the people.
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