So Young, So Committed, and So Much in Danger

Even as young lawyers, they have witnessed injustices being committed as they chose to defend the oppressed. And because they persist in handling “controversial” cases, Jobert Pahilga and Noel Neri have earned the ire of some of the country’s most powerful landlords and capitalists, as well as state security forces, and have become victims themselves of political retribution.


“Kailan iuuwi ang bangkay ni Attorney Pahilga?” (When will the body of Attorney Pahilga be brought home?)

This question shocked people who knew Jobert Pahilga, a young lawyer at 32 who has handled more than 100 cases involving land disputes in the different provinces nationwide.

But nobody could have been more scared than his family in his hometown in Antique. The question was asked by a bystander to an aunt of Pahilga three days before he was scheduled to go home for his father’s death anniversary on Sept. 9.

The timing of the question sent shivers down the spine of Pahilga’s family because it came in the heels of threats on his life allegedly coming from the military.

Pahilga is the executive director of the Sentro para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (SENTRA or Center for Genuine Agrarian Reform). SENTRA is among the lawyers’ groups in the country which are starting to feel the heat of repression for representing clients from people’s organizations who have either been killed, disappeared or illegally arrested and detained.

Since 2001, documents show that17 lawyers and judges have been killed, among them Felidito Dacut and Norman Bocar, both human rights and labor lawyers from Eastern Visayas. Dacut handled labor cases while Bocar took on agrarian cases in the twin provinces of Samar and Leyte, one of the priority regions of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in its intensified counterinsurgency campaign. These provinces also tallied the second most number of political killings since 2001. Retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, called the “butcher” by human rights advocates was assigned there from February to August 2005 before he was transferred to Central Luzon.

Dacut and Bocar also assisted the families of victims of human rights violations in filing cases against Palparan and other military officials.

Political killings and forcible disappearances have been concentrated in provinces outside the National Capital Region claiming at least 764 lives while 184 have been reported missing. However, intensive surveillance, and veiled threats and harassments directed against lawyers representing peasants, workers and victims of human rights violations and their families have created fears that death squads, allegedly formed by the military, are now operating in Metro Manila.

State policy

Noel Neri, 36, a young labor lawyer who works for the Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center (PLACE) said, “Those who are operating against us are mercenaries who are ready to kill if they find a chance to do so,” he said. “These are not simple surveillance operations but are bold and daring attacks against peoples’ lawyers,” he added.

Like Pahilga, PLACE lawyers who handle more than 700 labor cases in Metro Manila and nearby provinces in Central and Southern Luzon, have been under attack in recent months.

On Oct. 5, four men riding a van and two men riding a motorcycle tailed Lito Santos, an organizer of the Alliance of Democratic Labor organizations (ADLO), and eight union officers of Food Terminal Inc. (FTI) from the PLACE office along E. Rodriguez St. in Quezon City to the FTI premises in Bicutan, Taguig. Upon reaching the FTI, the union officers reported the matter to the police. Taguig police immediately apprehended the men on board the motorcycle and identified one of them as Pfc. Rommel Felipe Santiago of the Philippine Army.

In the police report, Santiago admitted they were doing surveillance operations on PLACE and that the tailing incident was a case of “mistaken identity.” He said they mistook Santos as the FTI union’s lawyer. Santiago was later released because, according to the police, he was on “official duty.”

Since October 16, armed men in civilian clothers were seen regularly in front of the PLACE office.

Confidential sources

Both Pahilga and Neri said they have confirmed through their confidential sources that they are “under surveillance.”

Pahilga said a friend who is a high ranking military officer had informed him of the existence of a “military intelligence abstract” that ordered a special unit of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army in Fort Magsaysay to put him “under intense surveillance.”

Mabigat ka pala. Ang mga hinahawakan mo daw kasing kaso ay mga controversial cases ng Left,” (I did not realize that you are that important to the military. They told me that the reason you are in the list is that you have been handling controversial cases involving the Left. ) Pahilga’s military friend told him.

Meanwhile, Neri said they have also been told by confidential sources that the military already has an “abstract report” on PLACE complete with their office lay-out.

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