'A threat on a lawyer is an assault on the Judiciary,' SC says amid rise in lawyer killings

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — In a rare move in the face of escalating attacks on lawyers, the Supreme Court said its stands by members of the legal profession and will not let injustices outside its halls go undenounced.

In a stirring statement read by SC spokesperson Brian Hosaka, the 15 justices of the high court collectively condemned “in the strongest sense every instance where a lawyer is threatened or killed and where a judge is threatened and unfairly labelled.”

“To threaten our judges and our lawyers is no less than an assault to the judiciary. The assault the judiciary is to shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands. This cannot be allowed in a civilized society like ours. This cannot go undenounced on the court's watch,” the SC continued.

The high court said that while it has always operated within institutional restraints, it is “far from resigned to spectate as clear breaches of constitutional rights is carried out beyond its halls.”

“The Bench and the Bar as well as the public can rest assured that we will continue to unflinchingly comply with our constitutional duty to act decisively when it is clear that injustices are done,” the high court also said.

Courses of action

The SC also shared a list of courses of action it is taking, starting with asking the law enforcement agencies and lower courts to furnish them with information on cases related to threats and killings of lawyers in the last ten years.

It also asked public interest groups and lawyers to provide the SC with vetted information on incidents of threats.

Relevant information can be sent to the SC’s Public Information Office, which is tasked with providing a report to the en banc before their last session in April. "The court will then decide on the next courses of action, including the amendment of the relevant rules or if necessary the creation of new ones," it added.

The SC also said they resolved to issue rules on use of body cameras during service of search and arrest warrants. “This is without prejudice to the courts deliberations on whether we can cover with our rules of procedure, the conduct of buy-bust operations and the enforcement of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs,” the SC added.

Progressive groups have said that court-issued warrants are being weaponized to round up or, worse, kill activists. The most recent of such incident is the bloody Calabarzon raids in March 7 where nine people were killed in simultaneous raids on activists and organizers whom the police said had illegal firearms and explosive.

The SC also said it directed the Office of the Court Administrator to coordinate with law enforcers to investigate an attempt to link a judge to communist rebels.

Although not identified in the statement, Mandaluyong Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio was red-tagged on a tarpaulin hung along Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare after she ordered the release of two activists over irregularities in their arrest and iconsistencies in the search warrant that led to it.

The SC has also ordered the conduct of a survey from trial courts and shariah judges on the threats they received in the last decade, “the resulting report would be the basis of further action by the Court.”

The high court also expressed readiness to provide security to judges concerned.

Letters of concern on attacks on lawyers will also be referred to concerned trial courts and be converted to proper remedies such as petitions for the writs of amparo or habeas data. 

Attack on lawyers

The statement was released on Tuesday, Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta’s last en banc session as he retires on March 27.

It comes following months of growing calls from lawyers to address their security concerns as attacks ranging from threats, red-tagging and to killings, continue.

This month alone, public rights defender Angelo Karlo Guillen was stabbed twice in Iloilo. Calbayog, Samar police had also asked the local court for a list of lawyers representing what they call are “communist terrorist group. Days later, a Mandaluyong Judge Ignacio was red-tagged.

 An independent tally from the Free Legal Assistance Group found that 61 lawyers were slain in the past five years under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. This number is higher than the killings in the past six administrations combined.

FLAG said a review of the killings showed that nearly half of the killings were linked to their legal practice. A separate report from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said at least 54 killings are on its face work-related.

In the face of these attacks, the SC called upon the entire Judiciary and the legal profession to stand strong and unwavering in their duties.

“True to the just virtues we all must fight for, our resolve is unqualified: We recognize the bravery of all the judges and the lawyers who show up to administer justice, in the face of fear. Let there be no doubt the Supreme Court stands with them,” the high court added.

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