A lawyers group has asked a UN special rapporteur to look into the flurry of attacks against members of the legal profession in the country, which has 40,000 living members of the bar.
Around 61 lawyers, prosecutors, and judges have been killed since 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said in a letter Monday to Diego García-Sayán, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
The victims of the attacks are either defense lawyers who handled drug cases or those involved in human rights and public interest lawyering, the NUPL said, adding of the 61, at least 54 "are prima facie work-related", the NUPL said.
In other related developments, a House leader has called for the speedy passage of a bill creating the Philippine Marshals Service, which shall be primarily responsible for the protection and security of the members of the judiciary, judicial personnel, the courts, and other court assets.
Rep. Ruffy Biazon of Muntinlupa, vice chair of the House committee on national defense, made the statement following perceived threats made against members of the legal profession by law enforcement agencies.
“We are calling on our fellow legislators in both Houses of Congress to support this bill because of its relevance and necessity, not only for the safety and security of those in the judiciary but also for facilitating the swift delivery of justice,” Biazon said.
“The substitute bill has already been approved by the Committee on Appropriations, and our next hurdle will be in the plenary, but I am optimistic that our colleagues will see the wisdom behind this piece of legislation,” he added.
Among other functions, Biazon said the Philippine Marshals Service, shall be tasked to protect, defend, and ensure the safety of justices, judges, court officials and personnel, and court buildings and properties.
The NUPL asked the UN special rapporteur to "form a team for the conduct of investigative mission to the Philippines" to look into the attacks, "uncover the perpetrators and prosecute them, and to recommend measures to prevent their further occurrence."
"These attacks produce a chilling effect which affects the performance of their sworn duties to the courts, their clients, their colleagues, and the society. Filipino lawyers, right now, fear that they might be the next victims of these attacks," the NUPL said.
"Almost all of the perpetrators have never been brought to the bar of justice. And the prevailing climate of impunity emboldens the perpetrators of these dastardly acts to commit further attacks."
The group cited as an example the action of sacked intelligence officer of Calbayog City Police, who had asked a local court for list of lawyers representing supposed “communist terrorist groups."
"Several steps to address these attacks are perceived or proven to be mere tokens, much delayed, even ineffective or misdirected especially since the state forces themselves, or their agents and proxies, are reasonably suspected to be behind these attacks," the NUPL said.
"The state forces have the motive and the means to do them, with the blessings, and encouragement even by President Duterte in his public speeches. On March 5, he even publicly declared to 'ignore human rights, kill communist rebels, and finish them all.'"
Meanwhile, a congressional leader on Monday urged the House of Representatives to look into the request of a Calbayog City police intelligence officer for a list of lawyers defending suspected “communists.”
“That request was improper, alarming, and violates the duty of lawyers to render legal service to any person needing it, said Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez.
Philippine National Police chief Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar has removed the police officer, Lt. Fernando Calabria Jr., from his post.
Rodriguez, a former law dean and a practicing lawyer for 27 years before joining public service, commended Eleazar for his action but said a House investigation was necessary to find out who issued the order to Calabria to ask the Calbayog Regional Trial Court for a list of lawyers of suspected communists.
“Lt. Calabria claimed that he was just following an order from ‘higher-ups.’ Who in the hierarchy of the PNP gave such directive? Why was the order issued? What was their goal?” the representative of Cagayan de Oro’s second district asked.
Attacks against lawyers, judges, and the public will worsen following the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act, the lawyers group added.
In a press briefing Monday, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said lawyers in the country had no reason to fear they were possible targets in the government's anti-insurgency campaign, citing the relief of Calbayog's intelligence police officer.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the request of the police officer was an isolated case, and noted that the Philippine National Police leadership already took action.
Nevertheless, he said he could not blame lawyers who fear being targeted or being profiled.
In 2018, Duterte had said García-Sayán "can go to hell" for allegedly "meddling" in the affairs of the country.
In a related development, Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the rule of law was "under siege" as lawyers tabulate dozens of deaths among members of their profession since the start of Duterte's term.
In a separate report, the Free Legal Assistance Group said 61 lawyers had been killed since the president assumed office in 2016.
Pangilinan said there were reported killings "almost daily," and these included police shootouts and "lawyers lawyering for suspected communists or farmers, groups, human rights organizations."
"The rule of law is under siege and this is a challenge," he told ANC's Headstart.
At the same time, Panglinan said he welcomed the relief of Calbayog City police chief, Lt. Col. Neil Montaño, for command responsibility over his station's intelligence officer's request for a list of lawyers representing alleged "communist-terrorist" groups. Montaño's relief also follows the deadly shooting of Mayor Ronaldo Aquino and 5 others.
Lawyers’ groups, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, have denounced Calabria’s request, which the Calbayog RTC did not act on.
This developed as Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite responded to the denial of DILG Undersecretary Bernardo Florece, Jr., a former police general, that a hitlist of leftist personalities was being prepared by the government.
Gaite earlier sounded the alarm over a letter from DILG Assistant Secretary Alexander Macario, former colonel of the AFP, ordering the listing of members of COURAGE, a confederation of public sector unions.
"No time and energy for such a scheme? The fact that they have time to issue such a Memo and are engaged in this witch-hunting belies this claim. The fact that Larece is defending the issuance of this terrorist-tagging directive shows that their main focus right now is not the pandemic but the suppression of public workers' unions.
Gaite said the arrest and imprisonment based on planted evidence of public sector union leaders Ramir Corcolon and Eugenio Eugenio was not just imagined. "The deaths in the Calabarzon Bloody Sunday is not imagined. This ongoing bloody campaign against progressives is indeed as real as it gets."
"If there is anyone that needs to be reminded of 'legal and moral obligations,' of upholding the Constitution, it's not the employees freely and legally organizing themselves, but authorities who are engaged in union-busting, in red-tagging, in witch-hunting, and in a murderous crackdown," Gaite added.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch on Monday denounced the killings of lawyers under the Duterte government, saying these were manifestations of the alleged culture of impunity in the Philippines.
“It is unconscionable that lawyers in the Philippines are being killed like flies,” said Carlos Conde, senior Philippines researcher at HRW.
“That most of these murders occurred in the last five years after President Duterte came to power in 2016, is not just shocking — it demonstrates the unsettling extent of the impunity in the Philippines and the ease with which murder is being used to deal with the marginalized, the critics, the activists, and those who dared to represent them as they seek redress in the judicial system,” he added.
Conde urged members of the international community to “step up” their response to the “unrelenting violence” in the Philippines.
Conde said the United Nations Human Rights Council and foreign governments, especially the Philippines’ trade and security allies, should not continue to “look away from the blood in the streets or respond weakly to the mayhem.”