The road to rare SC statement on attacks on lawyers: Threats, killings, and pleas to courts

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
The road to rare SC statement on attacks on lawyers: Threats, killings, and pleas to courts
In this photo taken on May 11, 2018, red ribbons were tied at the gates of the Supreme Court in Padre Faura, Manila. The ribbons were in support of the ouster of Maria Lourdes Sereno. Police ranks secured the area as protests from both sides of the SC compound happened, in anticipation of the high court ruling on the quo warranto petition against Sereno.
Philstar.com / Kristine Joy Patag

MANILA, Philippines — In a rare move on Tuesday, the 15-member Supreme Court collectively condemned the continued killings of lawyers and threats on judges.

The statement was in response to mounting pressure from groups from various sectors, especially from lawyers’ associations, for more definitive action from the SC to protect members of the Bench and Bar.

On Tuesday, also Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta’s last full court session, the court en banc said that threats on judges and lawyers are an assault on the judiciary, and to do as such “is to shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands.” It stressed these "cannot go undenounced on the Court’s watch."

The highest court of the land stating it stands with every brave lawyer and judge who administers justice in the face of fear is a welcome relief to the legal profession that, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said, has experienced a chilling effect as they dread that they might be the next victims.

"Finally, the Court has spoken. It is generally both comforting and reassuring to the legal community even as it took some precious time to happen and at great cost," NUPL president Edre Olalia said.

RELATED: The Peralta Court: A quick shift to digitization and pressure over killings of activists, lawyers

More than 50 lawyers killed since June 2016

More than 50 lawyers have been killed in the past five years during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

An independent Free Legal Assistance Group tally puts the killings at 61, while the NUPL records showed 56 killings. Both lawyers’ groups however stressed that at least half of these murders are linked to the victims' practice of the legal profession.

Sen. Leila De Lima, detained on drug-related charges, did not mince her words: “It is unfortunate that so many lawyers had to die before the SC acted.”

Lawyers are not only being violently attacked: They too reported threats, harassment, and red-tagged. The most recent victim of violence is young rights lawyer AK Guillen, who was stabbed twice in Iloilo early March. He was found with a screwdriver in his cheek. He is currently under recovery.

Shortly after the attack on Guillen, public rights defenders like him faced another threat, as Calbayog, Samar police asked the local court for the lawyers defending alleged members of "communist terrorist groups".

Days later, Mandaluyong Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio, who freed two activists over irregularities in their arrest, was red-tagged through a tarpaulin in EDSA.

These attacks which, happened within weeks of each other, came after bloody three months since November 2020 where four lawyers were killed while the body of a retired justice reported missing was found.

The SC, in its statement, requested cooperation from courts and law enforcement agencies for relevant information on cases linked to threats or killings of lawyers in the last ten years.

It also called on lawyers who experienced harassment or whose clients reported same to file motions before courts so they can be provided with relevant reliefs.

The NUPL has been doing that in the past years. Olalia told Philstar.com in a phone interview that, in 2005, the now-defunct Counsels for the Defense of Lawyers (CODAL) was monitoring attacks on lawyers and a year later, the group submitted a matrix of their list to then-Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban.

By 2007, the NUPL was established and took over some of the work of CODAL. Their group has helped international delegations of lawyers conduct missions in the country to look into attacks on lawyers; these panels met with the chief justice and submitted reports to them, Olalia said.

In 2018, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, then led by Abdiel Dan Fajardo, also asked the SC led by then-Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin to take action on lawyers’ killings, following succeeding attacks on the legal profession.

The IBP and the NUPL again knocked on the SC’s gates in December 2020, and a month later, the high court met with government agencies and lawyers’ association to look into their concerns.

“We shall cooperate with its directives even as we have been sounding out the clarion call and providing information and concrete recommendations for the longest time,” Olalia added.

READ: With more than 50 lawyers killed since 2016, legal institutions meet on security issues

Decades-old call for review of writs

Olalia said they submitted a paper as early as 2009 on lawyers and paralegals’ involved in the suits seeking protection writs and their proposed amendments on the rule on amparo.

Among the proposed amendment is that no petition will be denied due course due to inadequate allegations or other defects concerning the contents of the plea.

A decade later, in April 2019, NUPL lawyers themselves sought protection from courts against perceived state harassment through a petition for writ of amparo but failed.

The Court of Appeals rejected their plea for temporary protection order, as it pointed out that they provide a full list of individuals that may benefit from the relief and that they failed to indicate which agency can give them protection as allegations were levelled against police and military.

The NUPL also helped draft the amparo petition of rights defenders, but again they failed at the appeals court as it held that the petitions did not fulfill the evidentiary standard that their rights are violated by the state agents named as respondents.

Karapatan paralegal Zara Alvarez, one of those who sought protection from the court, was killed while the appeal to the SC was under review.

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the group, said they victims of human rights violation such as them will participate in collective information on threats on lawyers and clients. She added they believe it is crucial for the SC to act on a timely manner, recalling their own petition.

Citing Alvarez’s case, Rep. Carlos Zarate (BAYAN Muna party-list) asked Court Administrator Midas Marquez on possible changes on the Rule of the Writ of Amparo. Marquez, in October 2020, said the SC is open to that.

READ: SC to review 2007 Rules on Writ of Amparo

It is unclear whether the SC statement issued six months later is the opening for such a review, but the high court said they will look into whether rules may be amended.

“Based on the information provided, 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,” the SC said.

A welcome step, but will Duterte listen?

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines said they are pleased and grateful their recommendations to the SC are being acted upon. IBP president Domingo Egon Cayosa committed that they will continue working with government agencies to improve the security of lawyers.

“Lawyers, judges, prosecutors and all workers in the justice sector can and should do so much to deliver justice a lot faster. Only when the evil-doers are swiftly and surely held accountable that the criminals fear and law and respect the rights of others,” he added.

The Commission on Human Rights joined lawyers in welcoming the SC’s course of action to defend the country’s lawyers. Spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia said “it is high time that a stronger message be sent on the invaluable role of lawyers and judges in upholding human rights, particularly to due process, as well as the rule of law.”

De Guia said that addressing impunity is not a task the SC can handle alone.

She called on the “government, especially our law enforcers, to uphold their duty to respect and protect the life and liberty of every individual.”

Sen. De Lima however raised a question: “Will Duterte listen or will he continue to instruct our police to ignore human rights.”

“In the first place, it is the SC itself who said he is immune to suit, and that anyone he attacks is without recourse in law,” the senator said, referring to the court’s dismissal of her petition for habeas data.

De Lima, a vocal critic of Duterte, sought relief from the SC to compel the president to give her access to information collected in the allegations thrown by the government against her. But the high court junked her plea and appeal, stressing that Duterte as incumbent president is immune from suit.

“Duterte is a monster that SC helped create,” the senator added.

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