Who will defend the defenders? Human rights lawyering amidst impunity

by Atty. Edre U. Olalia, NUPL Secretary General, IAPL President, IADL Bureau Member

In our practice court in law school our professor would advice us: if you are strong on the law – pound on the law; if your are strong on the facts – pound on the facts; but if you are weak both on the facts and the law – pound on the table!

But in the Philippines, the security forces dont pound on the law; they dont pound on the facts; they dont pound on the table they pound on the lawyers, especially human rights lawyers.

Human rights lawyers have committed to help promote and protect the rights of the people, particularly the oppressed and marginalized, from the abuses of the few who belong to the dominant elite of our society. But, the spate of impunity is so brazen that even human rights advocates, both lawyers and non-lawyers alike, are not spared from the repressive apparatus of state forces.

This is coupled with the failure of the judicial and the legislative branches of the government to counteract the coercive undertakings of the executive branch and its security forces without respect to the rights of defenseless civilians and the so called rule of law. With this set-up, any semblance of order and faith that remains in the legal processes crumbles, making things worse as perpetrators are left free from any accountability.

The inadequacy, ineffectivity and failure of existing legal remedies to obliterate the climate of impunity is apparent in the cases of human rights defender Eden Marcellana, peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy and journalist activist Beng Hernandez which, despite United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee (HRC) resolutions finding the Philippine government guilty of human rights abuses, has been left unsolved as the perpetrators remain free from any accountability.

In this light, in the case of Razon vs. Tagitis[1], the Supreme Court itself recognized that it is an extremely difficult condition for the disappeared (and of those extrajudicially killed) victims families to get justice because it is the State itself, the party whose involvement is alleged, which investigates the incidents of enforced disappearances. Past experiences in other jurisdictions show that evidentiary difficulties are generally three-fold.

First, there may be a deliberate concealment of the identities of the direct perpetrators. Experts note that abductors are well organized, armed and usually members of the military or police forces. Second, deliberate concealment of pertinent evidence of the disappearance is a distinct possibility. Third is the element of denial; in many cases, the state authorities deliberately deny that the enforced disappearance ever occurred.[2]

Victimizing Human Rights Lawyers

Since 2001, state forces have been waging a systematic and conscious attack on activists, farmers, workers, indigenous peoples, journalists, human rights advocates, and even church people and peoples lawyers.

As the strategy of the counterinsurgency efforts of the government, Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Plan Freedom Watch) has been linked with extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and harassments as it does not distinguish between rebels and civilians, and underground and legal organizations, such vio9lations as well as the filing of false charges have been carried out with odious brazenness and cruelty.

These patterns of human rights violations continue even with the promises of the new administration to end government abuses and excesses which PNoy calls utak wangwang. 48 cases of extrajudicial killings have already been documented in the first year of the Aquino administration alone.

Out of the hundreds of civilians that were extrajudicially killed since January 2001, 27 were lawyers, 8 of whom were involved in human rights issues. The human rights lawyers who were killed were:

Atty. Juvy Magsino of Mindoro, counsel for militant groups and local official who was vocal against military abuses and mining projects affecting the people. She was riddled with bullets while driving her car.

Atty. Teresita Vidamo of the Public Attorneys Office of Las Pinas, Metro Manila. She was handling controversial land and labor disputes at the time she was shot.

Atty. Arbet Yongco of Cebu, private prosecutor in a parricide case against a cult leader belonging to a powerful family. She was shot inside her house.

Atty. Felidito Dacut of Leyte, counsel for unions and peoples organizations. He was shot by armed men riding in a motorcycle while inside a passenger jeepney on his way to buy milk for his 3-year old daughter. He was then handling cases involving human rights and labor disputes.

Atty. Norman Bocar of Samar. He was counsel for militant organizations and partylist groups when he was shot.

Atty. Gil Gojol, Former local public official, former bar president, professor and legal counsel of progressive party-list groups and peoples organizations.

Attys. Cynthia Oquendo and Concepcion Brizuela of Mindanao. They were part of those massacred by the powerful Ampatuan family closely affiliated with the former administration.

Atty. Brizuela, an officer of the Union of Peoples in Mindanao (UPLM) and founding member of the National Union of Peoples Lawyers (NUPL), was interviewed by a foreign mission of judges and lawyers regarding the threat on her life a year before she was killed.

During the same period, 42 other lawyers who were involved in human rights issues and cases were subjected to different forms of attacks. Human rights lawyers and their families received death threats and are subjected to constant or periodical surveillance. Some of them are harassed, intimidated, red-tagged and have their offices ransacked by unidentified armed men.

These unresolved killings and continuing attacks on lawyers and judges is an attack on the legal profession, a travesty of due process, the rule of law and the system of justice. As these incidents are the function of the counterinsurgency program of the government, it is not surprising that a considerable number of victimized lawyers are either counsels of entities conveniently labeled as enemies of the state or are themselves labelled as such.

It is very ironic that the rights of the human rights defenders are violated. Indeed, it is the height of impunity when human rights advocates themselves become the hapless victims of the climate of impunity.

This manifests that there is a deliberate and methodical effort to thwart attempts to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. This requires no less than a reciprocally deliberate and methodical effort to defend the defenders themselves from human rights abuses through a strong mass movement, a broad network of support and campaign, and international solidarity and vigilance.

With the continuing incidents of killings ,forcible disappearance, torture and arbitrary arrests and with the perpetrators still able to evade punishment to this day, there is an obvious lack of correct pro-people political will or sincerity on the part of the Aquino administration to eradicate the climate of impunity that has long prevailed and which continues to persecute mostly those from the marginalized sectors or those who stand by them.

The struggle to change this impunity that has been engendered remains a challenge to those of us in the legal profession and, of course, all other human rights defenders. The perils in our line of work and commitment as human rights lawyers which we continuously face day in and day out will not discourage us, much less demoralize our ranks, and from standing by the rights and interests of the poor and the oppressed in our society and struggling, in and outside of the courtrooms, for the causes that we believe in.

As one of our peoples lawyers has said: It does not matter how long you have lived, what is important is what you have done to serve the people and the county.[3] Indeed, it has been said that only those who choose to fight with the dangers of the battlefield and sacrificed the comfort of the fence live beyond irrelevance.[4]

Finally, as NUPL Chairperson Emeritus Romeo Capulong said, We have brave clients. They deserve brave lawyers.

[1] GR No. 182498, February 16, 2010
[2] Razon vs. Tagitis, GR No. 182498, February 16, 2010
[3] Atty. Kathrina Castillo, NUPL National Auditor, A Young and Fearless Peoples Lawyer, Attacks on Lawyers: Human Rights Defenders Under Siege, NUPL, 2011.
[4] Former Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, Message to the NUPL Founding Congress, September 15, 2007.

National Secretariat
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL)
3F Erythrina Building,
Maaralin corner Matatag Sts.
Central District, Quezon City, Philippines
Tel.No.920-6660,Telefax No. 927- 2812
Email addresses: [email protected] and [email protected]
Visit the NUPL at http://www.nupl.net/

By calling yourselves the ‘people’s lawyer,’ you have made a remarkable choice. You decided not to remain in the sidelines. Where human rights are assaulted, you have chosen to sacrifice the comfort of the fence for the dangers of the battlefield. But only those who choose to fight on the battlefield live beyond irrelevance.” Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, in his message to the NUPL Founding Congress,Sept. 15, 2007.

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