By BRYNCH BONACHITA and CLAIRE OBEJAS
Aninaw Productions / Bulatlat.com
CEBU — At Cebu’s Carbon Market, vendors were planning to hold a candle-lighting prayer on the night of August 25. They had just filed their legal challenge early in the day against a “modernization” project that threatens the public character of the market and their place in it.
What the vendors did not expect, however, is that they would instead light candles to commemorate one of their counsels who assisted in crafting their petition. On August 26, human rights lawyer Rex “Etot” Jesus Mario Fernandez was shot dead in broad daylight at Duterte St., barangay Guadalupe, Cebu City by a hooded gunman. His driver Darvie survived but was brought to the hospital in critical condition.
“The filing was Wednesday. He was ambushed late afternoon sa Thursday. We were in a state of shock. Nanghilak mi. It’s so sad nga sa iya namo nahalad ang among candle-lighting (We cried. It’s sad that the candle-lighting was offered for him instead),” said Anna Ariosa, president of Carbon-hanong Alyansa alang sa Reporma ug Bahandianong Ogma sa Nanginabuhi (CARBON Alliance), an alliance of 13 Carbon vendors associations.
On August 25, CARBON Alliance filed a petition before the Cebu City Regional Trial Court for a temporary restraining order and injunction against the joint venture agreement (JVA) of Megawide Construction Corporation and the Cebu City government that sought to “modernize” Carbon Market.
Vendors and residents in nearby sitio Bato, barangay Ermita have expressed fear and indignation that the project, which is being undertaken without consultation, would displace them and privatize the public market, making it inaccessible to many.
It was Fernandez’s heart for the marginalized that brought him to the defense of the market vendors, who would become his last known pro bono clients before his untimely death. Although the lawyer’s time with them was cut short, it was nonetheless meaningful, said Ariosa.
“During our meetings, he told us of his experience in Carbon during his younger years as an activist. He would sleep at Carbon,” Ariosa said in Cebuano. “His enthusiasm in helping us was clear to us because he was always early and the first to arrive during our meetings.”
Perla Eraya, president of Warwick Barracks Stall Owners and Livelihood Association, Inc. (WABSOALAI), could not believe when she first heard the shooting incident. Though she has only met Fernandez three times, Eraya fondly remembers him as a jolly person who hated people who “discriminate” against the poor in Cebu City.
A bullheaded people’s lawyer
Fernandez finished law school in his 30s, and worked for human rights cases in 1988 in response to the militarization of Bohol and northern Cebu, rights group Karapatan-Central Visayas spokesperson Dennis Michael Abarientos recalled.
This was at the backdrop of then-president Corazon Aquino’s National Reconciliation and Development Program in 1986 and Executive Order (EO) 264 in 1987 which formed the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU).
The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a prominent human rights organization at that time and where Fernandez was involved in, documented more than 1.2 million victims of displacement due to military operations, 135 cases of massacres, 1,064 victims of summary executions, and 20,523 victims of illegal arrest and detention under the Aquino administration.
In a tribute for Fernandez, Jaime Paglinawan of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN)-Central Visayas recalled how a BAYAN meeting in 1986 began a long journey of working together with Fernandez as Cebu joined the resistance against the Marcos dictatorship.
In 2001, Fernandez and Paglinawan joined the People Power uprising 2 in Fuente Osmena, Cebu City, at the nationwide mobilization that toppled former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada.
“I cannot forget his strong voice shouting, ‘Erap, resign! Erap, resign!’ The people were victorious in ousting Erap,” Paglinawan said in Cebuano.
Fernandez worked in Cebu until he had to assist Karapatan’s national office from 2004 to 2009, at the height of human rights violations under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration. In 2007, he co-founded the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), a nationwide voluntary association of public interest lawyers in the country.
Among the notable cases Fernandez handled that time was the enforced disappearance of UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño filed against Jovito Palparan, a former army general who would later be convicted of kidnapping and serious illegal detention over the case in 2018.
For Abarientos, Fernandez was a “bullheaded” lawyer in the courtroom, owing to the values and experiences he had carried with him as then a student activist and community organizer in Central Visayas. He knew that the law has always been biased against the oppressed, Abrientos said, and would combine court battles with meta-legal tactics by organizing and launching campaigns.
“In the courtroom, I have had the honor and privilege to witness what other lawyers and clients admire him of — his mastery in criminal law and remedial law as well as in litigation and his fervor in advancing the cause of his clients,” a source from NUPL, who has worked with Fernandez and requested not to be named, said.
“He would not back down even at the risk of being held in contempt by the judge,” the source added.
Fernandez was many things to many people, his nephew Al Osiris Ingking said in a Facebook post.
Ingking was one of the eight individuals in Cebu who was arrested in an Anti-Terror Bill protest on June 5, 2020 at University of the Philippines Cebu — an incident that reportedly disillusioned Fernandez who supported and campaigned for Duterte. Fernandez had been one of the first lawyers to respond to the arrest.
Paglinawan, also one of the Cebu 8, recalled Fernandez’s tenacity at the police station.
“Because there wasn’t any case against us, Atty. Rex wanted us to leave [the station]. We were actually already by the door of the building of the Cebu City Police Office and I was handcuffed when he told us, ‘Leave, because there are no charges against you,’” Paglinawan said.
When Paglinawan visited him on August 15 this year during his hunger strike against the management of the condominium he lived in, Fernandez criticized how President Duterte handled the corruption that was prevailing in different government agencies following the 2020 audit reports.
“After being pro-Duterte for so long, Etot no longer agreed [with the president],” said Paglinawan.
“Before he was silenced, he castigated the present administration which he had hitherto placed his sincere hope on would bring change,” NUPL President Edre Olaila said, referring to Fernandez’s criticisms of the Duterte administration. “He died disillusioned that it was not meant to be.”
For women’s group Gabriela-Cebu, Fernandez is remembered for his service to comfort women in Cebu who were forced to sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. He was one of the lawyers who immediately offered his service when asked for help in preparing affidavits for a class suit filed against the Japanese government, Garbiela-Cebu said.
Fernandez also handled pro bono cases for political prisoners and human rights victims in Bohol, according to Hugpong sa Mag-uumang Bol-anon-Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (HUMABOL-KMP). The peasant group said that he was a resource speaker for paralegal training and human rights discussions.
Bishop of San Carlos Rev. Gerardo Alminaza recalled Fernandez “a former Redemptorist seminarian” who had a heart for the people and had touched so many lives. “When the clergy, religious, and lay people in the Visayas, especially in the Archdiocese of Cebu needed legal assistance, he readily offered his time and expertise,” Alminaza said.
Since 2010, the lawyer had actively supported the bishops and clergy of the Visayas Clergy Discernment Group (VCDG) and the Archdiocese of Cebu Discernment Group in people’s issues, such as labor rights, urban poor welfare, environment protection and good governance. Fernandez was also a key convenor of the Archdiocese of Cebu-initiated Coalition Against the Pork Barrel System (2014) and the National People’s Initiative to Abolish the Pork Barrel (2015), Alminaza said.
“And though some may find it curious that he was gunned down in Duterte street under Duterte’s regime, and though many are surely mourning the passing of a Cebuano legend, it is also necessary to celebrate the side of the man that is not known to many,” Ingking said, who fondly recalled his uncle as a lover of arts.
Paglinawan lamented that a lawyer of political prisoners, vendors, and ordinary citizens was killed.
“We will no longer hear his laughter. We will no longer be able to read on his social media account his jokes and trivia. We will no longer hear his suggestions and criticisms,” Paglinawan said. And to Fernandez, “You will no longer be able to join us in protests to dismantle imperialism, to dismantle the three basic problems of our country. But you will remain in our hearts and in our memories as someone who joined and contributed to the people’s movement for a truly free Philippines, for genuine democracy and liberation.”
Paglinawan further called for justice for Fernandez and all the victims of extrajudicial killings.