‘Weaponizing the law, criminalizing dissent’

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Two luminaries of the legal profession have attached their names to a statement issued on November 27 by the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties strongly condemning and protesting the “baseless and unfounded attacks” against lawyers and other human rights defenders.

“The incessant harassment and threats towards our colleagues, trumped-up charges against dissenters, and unsolved extra-judicial killings [are] an attack against civil liberties and constitutional rights of the people,” says the CLCL statement.

It bears the names of two of its co-convenors: Pacifico Agabin and Rene Saguisag Sr. A highly respected constitutionalist, Agabin was dean of the UP College of Law; many of those in the frontlines today were taught by him. Former senator Saguisag has been a stalwart human rights lawyer since the days of ardent struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.  

Both, of course, are now octogenarians, responding to the call for volunteers to fight once more for the people’s hard-won freedoms.

 Among others, the statement points to the case filed against Vice President Leni Robredo, De La Salle law dean Jose Manuel Diokno, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, former House deputy speaker Erin Tañada, Theodore Te and church people for supposed sedition and other criminal acts; the PNP complaint of alleged kidnapping and other offenses against Neri Colmenares of the National Union of People’s Lawyers; and the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima for over a thousand days now.

“A climate of fear and impunity pervades amidst the administration’s attempts to intimidate the opposition and demonize dissenters,” including members of the church and the academe, the statement points out. Activists are “relentlessly vilified, criminally charged, or extra-judicially killed.” 

Last Thursday, the Movement Against Tyranny (of which Saguisag is a co-convenor) and the NUPL held a public forum in Quezon City on the topic, “Weaponizing the law, Criminalizing dissent.” Among the key discussants were Hilbay, Colmenares and Edre U. Olalia, NUPL chair and president, respectively.

The discussions essentially covered issues raised by CLCL, in the context of the implementation of President Duterte’s Executive Order 70 (issued last year) through the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). (For brevity, I’ll refer to it as simply NTF).

EO 70 institutionalizes the “whole-of-nation” approach as government policy to attain “inclusive and sustainable peace” by doing the following: a) prioritize and harmonize the delivery of basic services and social development packages in “conflict-affected areas and vulnerable communities”; b) facilitate “societal inclusivity”; and c) ensure active participation of everyone in the pursuit of the government’s “peace agenda.”

But note how National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., NTF vice chair, twists its task as being “to synchronize the utilization of the government’s instrumentalities of power with the capabilities of private sector stakeholders to finally end” – not the armed conflict – but what he alleges as “the 50-year-long deceit, lies and atrocities committed by the communist terrorists against the people.”

Mind that in 46 agencies of the civilian bureaucracy harnessed by the NTF, Duterte has appointed 69 officials who are all former officers of the AFP and the PNP – 31 of them holding the highest positions. Also, the Executive, through quo warranto proceedings initiated by the Solicitor General, has caused the ouster of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, specifically cited by Duterte as his “enemy” (the same title he bestowed on former SC Justice and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales and Sen. De Lima).

EO 70 states that the root causes of armed conflicts/insurgencies are, inarguably, “not only military and security concerns, but are symptomatic of broader social, economic and historical problems such as poverty, historical injustice, social inequality…” However, Brig. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., AFP deputy chief for civil-military operations and NTF frontman, has a far different take. “We will address the root causes of insurgency…,” he has said, “especially the primary causes – communist agitation and propaganda.” How’s that again?

“That’s right, it’s not poverty,” he stressed, “but we will address poverty just the same.”

So what have Parlade and his NTF team done? They went around the country to vilify not only the CPP-NPA but legitimate organizations and institutions they tag as its “front organizations.” In February, his team traipsed to Bosnia, Switzerland, and Belgium.  They urged the European Union and the Belgian foreign ministry to stop financial support for some 30 nongovernmental organizations in the Philippines, specifically naming the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, IBON Foundation, Karapatan, and Alcadev (the network of Lumad schools).  Parlade’s team claimed the funds were being used to fuel “terrorist acts.”   

 That brazen European foray failed.  Both the European Union and the institutions concerned verified the allegations of fund mishandling, upheld the integrity of the funding agreements and their implementation, and belied the NTF team’s accusations.

In its red-tagging and vilification drive, the NTF has realized that the existing laws are inadequate as instruments. It now wants harsher measures: reviving the anti-subversion law of 1957 (repealed in 1992), amending the anti-terrorist law (Human Security Act of 2007), reviving the death penalty, expanding the wire-tapping law, among others.

DILG Secretary Eduardo Año said in August: “If we revive the anti-subversion law, we will be able to dismantle the urban mass movement in the cities that fuels the armed struggle in the mountains. We will be able to stifle their so-called ‘legal front organizations’ that provides [sic] sustenance to the underground mass organizations.” That, he fantazied, “will be the beginning of an inevitable end.”

Meantime, the NTF has been weaponizing the law and abusing the criminal justice system through various schemes, such as pressuring public prosecutors and judges to cooperate; abusing the “presumption of regularity in perfomance of official duties” in conducting arrests, searches and seizures; using perjured/false witnesses in securing search warrants from the courts; abusing generic John Doe warrants; filing nonbailable charges (usually illegal possession of explosives, routinely planted during searches), and ignoring the political offense principle repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court.

Amid widespread harassment of activists and dissenters, free speech is being stifled, and people are denied the right to freely join associations. In demonizing the country’s vibrant social movements, the regime is impairing advocacy work for the poor and marginalized. It prejudices the practice of professions. Crucially, it prevents accountability for abuses and corruption by state functionaries/agents.  

“Lawyers and human rights defenders have the duty to assist in the dispensation of justice for all,” the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties assert in response, vowing, “We will not be cowed by attempts to sideline or silence us.” They call on the country’s lawyers to“unite against brazen impunity and looming tyranny.”

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