International panel of lawyers note ‘sharp increase’ in rights violations vs lawyers
MANILA, Philippines — There has been a “sharp increase” of rights violations against Philippine rights lawyers and legal professionals since the start of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, a delegation of international lawyers said on Monday.
The panel, composed of members of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, International Association of Lawyers and Day of Endangered Lawyer Foundation, also urged the chief executive—known for his firebrand leadership—to “refrain from publicly attacking lawyers and instead publicly condemn all attacks against lawyers, prosecutors and judges.”
The delegation reviewed 13 incidents of attacks against members of the Philippine bar. They conducted interviews and conferences, including meetings with government and non-government offices, in Metro Manila and Iloilo from March 14 to 18.
Legal professionals—from paralegals to judges, and even a lawmaker—suffered attacks since July 2016.
The Department of Justice, National Bureau of Investigation, Quezon City Prosecutors League, the Commission on Human Rights, Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Philippine Judges Association, Manlaban and Karapatan were also sought for insights.
Culture of impunity
Upon a review of data, the panel said that there are “patterns” in killings.
The delegation noted that Duterte, as early as August 2016, remarked: “If they [lawyers] are obstructing justice, you shoot them.” They also pointed out that president himself made declarations against lawyers when he was talking about the drug war. “Even their lawyers, I will include them.”
“Duterte’s declarations and almost complete impunity of offenders give police, military and effectively anyone a license to harass and kill,” they said. The president is also a lawyer and a former prosecutor himself.
Red-tagging, harassment and surveillance also precede the killing.
Philippine jurisprudence defines red-tagging as “the act of labelling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy… by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’”
“We learned that lawyers in the Philippines have been red-tagged for defending human rights, defending political dissidents, and defending victims of human rights violations,” the delegation said.
Rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos, before he was gunned down in November 2018, was included in a poster of supposed “CNN”—a government abbreviation for Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front—personalities, according to a report from independent news site Bulatlat.com.
Earlier in February, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers reported an attack against lawyer Edgardo Balgos, its Cagayan Valley chapter member, who was helping the family of slain peace consultant Randy Malayao.
The panel said that the attacks on lawyers “have created a climate of fear” among their colleagues, preventing them from taking on drug-related cases or politically-charged cases in fear of being killed or criminalized.
There was also a noted “lack of sufficient investigation” and lack of inventory of the used guns or documented files on the killings, the delegation stressed.
They urged the government to protect the safety of lawyers and legal workers and ensure that they can carry out their duties without intimidation or harassment.
Palace denies administration’s hands in killings
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, however, said that the panel should not attribute the deaths to the president as the killings “could be personally motivated.”
“The administration has not attacked any lawyer in any way and/or manner,” Panelo, who is also the presidential chief legal counsel, added in a statement.
“Coming as it does from lawyers who should know better, blaming the administration for the lawyers’ deaths is gross intellectually challenged,” he also said.
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