Last Tuesday night, human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos, who assisted the families of the nine farm workers massacred in a Sagay City hacienda on Oct. 20, was gunned down by a tandem of motorcycle-riding men near his home in Kabangkalan City. He was a founding member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and secretary-general of its Negros Occidental chapter.
That his killing has tremendous implications and consequences can be drawn from the denunciations raised by the NUPL, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (the national lawyers’ organization) and its regional chapters, national and international human rights formations, the Commission on Human Rights, the Philippine National Police, and Malacañang.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he had ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to determine whether “there is any indication that the incident is related to the previous killings of the farmers” in Sagay City. This is a positive step on the part of the government.
Related matters that need serious attention are the following:
Before Ramos was killed, the Sagay police had filed a charge of “kidnapping and serious illegal detention” against another NUPL lawyer, Katherine Panguban, after she assisted the mother of a 14-year-old boy survivor of the massacre to regain custody of her son. On Nov. 4, the newly designated commander of the Philippine Army’s 303rd Infantry Brigade in Negros, Col. Benedict Arevalo, railed against Panguban and the human rights alliance Karapatan over the alleged kidnapping. In a press statement, Arevalo tagged Karapatan, which had organized a fact-finding mission on the Sagay massacre, as “NPA-Terrorists supporter.”
In a press conference by the massacre survivors last Wednesday, Panguban and the boy-survivor’s mother effectively refuted the kidnapping charge. They showed to the media a written document on the turnover of custody, signed on Oct. 25 by both of them and an official of the Sagay City Social Welfare and Development Office. The boy’s biological father, who police claimed had initiated the kidnapping charge, himself signed the custody document as witness.
Also on Wednesday, in a separate press conference in Cebu City, NUPL-Visayas vice chair Ian Sapayan said that the Negros Oriental police had distributed fliers that named Ramos and 60 other persons from Negros as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Topping these political assaults, NUPL president Edre Olalia revealed that, of late, members of the pro-bono lawyering group have been receiving death threats for handling cases of “political prisoners, suspected rebels, environmentalists, and suspected poor drug users.” The NUPL and its key officers, he added, have been “increasingly labeled and branded pejoratively by the police, military, vigilantes, some bigoted columnists, and online trolls, in open contempt of basic principles on the role of lawyers in society.”
Olalia may have been referring to the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted in September 1990, by the 8th UN Congress on the Prevention of Crimes and Treatment of Offenders. The document prescribes two requirements for UN member-states:
• That governments ensure that lawyers are able to perform all their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; and
• That State authorities provide adequate safeguards when the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions.
The same principles were cited by lawyers in 2012, when then IBP president Roan Libarios observed that in the previous 10 years, at least 200 lawyers and judges had been shot in cold blood. He added that most of the cases had remained unsolved, with the police authorities claiming “lack of evidence and witnesses” thereby “generating a feeling of helplessness among the general public.”
These universal obligations have continued to be disregarded by the Philippine government, Olalia said, pointing out that Ramos was the 34th lawyer killed under the 28-month administration of President Duterte. “Excluding judges and prosecutors, he is the 24th member of the profession killed and the eighth in the Visayas,” he said.
“These beastly attacks by treacherous cowards cannot go on,” Olalia emphasized. “Not a few of our members have been attacked and killed before while literally practicing their profession and advocacies in the courts, in rallies, in picket lines, in urban poor communities, and in fact-finding missions.”
In the past few years, the NUPL has campaigned for a stop to the attacks against human rights lawyers, ruthlessly killed or attacked in various ways because of their work and advocacies as “people’s lawyers.”
The campaign has won the support of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights, the European Democratic Lawyers, the European Bar Human Rights Institute and other progressive lawyers’ groups in the United States and other countries.
In 2015, the IADL Monitoring Committee on Attacks Against Lawyers issued its first report, titled “Attacks on Lawyers: A Threat to Democracy.” It focused on lawyers in the Philippines, and covered the period from Jan. 1, 1999 to Dec. 31, 2014.
The report culled its data from Philippine media reportage, the report of a Fact-Finding Mission of Lawyers for Lawyers in 2006, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston’s report in 2007, from the IBP, NUPL, Karapatan, PNP, and interviews with activists, academics, lawyers and others.
The 15-year period covered corresponded with the 108 months of the Gloria Arroyo government and 54 months of the Benigno Aquino III administration. Over that period, the IADL report tallied a total of 114 lawyers killed, of whom 23 were judges, 8 were prosecutors, and 83 practicing lawyers.
The period covered by the study under the Arroyo regime was twice longer than that under the Aquino administration. Also the number of lawyers killed under Arroyo – 78 – were twice as many as those killed under three-fourths of Aquino’s watch – 36.
Now consider this: under Duterte’s first 28 months in office, already 34 lawyers have been killed: just two less than those killed in 54 months under P-Noy. Is the current president, a compañero, bent on overtaking the tally racked up under his predecessor?
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Published in Philippine Star
Nov. 10, 2018