Christmas rings with calls to end impunity

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - December 26, 2020 - 12:00am

As the Christmas season reaches its peak, louder cries are being heard as the public condemns the extrajudical killings attributed to the Duterte government in pursuing its dubious goals of exterminating what it deems as insurgency, terrorism and the drug scourge.

The voices of rage and alarm disturb the dreams of peace and goodwill that have traditionally marked the holiday celebrations in the country. Families are grieving the deaths of their loved ones lost to a pitiless pandemic. Worse, we mourn the loss of lives to an even more pitiless assertion of power and impunity.

Even in the high levels of government, consciences are being stirred. Last Monday, six pro-administration senators, headed by Juan Miguel Zubiri, the majority leader, initiated legislative action with the objective to “break the culture of impunity, especially among law enforcement agencies” by identifying gaps in law enforcement and ensuring that all victims of such killings attain justice.

The other senators are Grace Poe, Juan Edgardo Angara, Sherwin Gatchalian, Nancy Binay and Joel Villanueva. They filed a Senate resolution seeking legislative inquiry into the “series of unlawful killings of citizens, including doctors, lawyers, journalists and members of other professions,” noting that 15 of these crimes happened in just the last six months.

In separate initiatives, members of the legal profession sought urgent actions from the Supreme Court and Malacañang to stop the killings of lawyers, judges and prosecutors. As of last count, 54 legal practitioners have been slain since President Duterte assumed office in July 2016.

At least 70 lawyers, including several law deans, former legislators and other legal experts, urged Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, in a two-page letter on Tuesday, to enjoin Malacañang to protect legal practitioners.

Although the “continuing, increasing and more brazen killings of Filipino lawyers and judges have been going on for many years now,” they noted there has been a “strong increase” since 2016, when President Duterte came. “[This] has made the legal profession one of the most dangerous careers in the country,” they added.

Specifically, they asked the Supreme Court to do the following: take appropriate action to ensure impartial and independent probes into all killings of lawyers; convene a dialogue on lawyers’ safety and security between the high court and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the national police and the armed forces, among others; and demand accountability from the perpetrators and justice for the victims.

On the other hand, the IBP, which is the officially recognized organization of all lawyers in the country, directly asked President Duterte on Thursday for executive action to stop the killings of its members.

“When lawyers, judges, prosecutors and workers in the justice sector are murdered with impunity and alarming regularity,” the IBP said, “no one feels safe, our people lose trust and faith in our government and its justice system, and the unscrupulous are emboldened to take the law into their criminal hands.”

The IBP appealed to lawyers in all branches of the government “who occupy positions of great authority and power” to take concerted action to decisively address attacks on lawyers. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra responded by saying he would meet with the IBP leadership to “coordinate our action” to address the issue.

Stepping up to join the outcry is a group of intrepid women, journalists who had been in the front lines of the human rights struggle during the Marcos dictatorship. “Duterte’s red-tagging and narco-listing are a death sentence,” declares a statement released by Women Writers in Media Now (WOMEN), this Dec. 17. In her Philippine Daily Inquirer column last Thursday, Ceres Doyo, a member of the group, quoted the statement:

“Duterte’s predisposition for labelling and listing his perceived enemies as ‘Communists and/or Drug Dealers and Users’ has brought about record-breaking assassinations – STILL UNRESOLVED – of alleged ‘communist terrorists’ and ‘narco-politicians’ in the four and a half years since he took office. (…._) The President boasts of having killed his enemies with his own hands and yet protests that he has nothing to do with the ‘random killings.’”

“The horrible bloodbath continues. Journalists, lawyers and even judges have been gunned down. And there is a definite pattern to all this,” the statement adds, pointing as examples to the brutal killings of 71-year-old peasant leader Randall Echanis, human rights worker Zara Alvarez, the 69-year-old Magpantay-Topacio couple and most recently Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan and her husband Edwin, killed in Guihulngan City (Negros Oriental).

In conclusion, “Red-tagging and narco-listing… have no place in a democracy,” the statement asserts. “They must be outlawed and denounced before the world.”

Church bells started ringing at 8 p.m. yesterday, Christmas, in all the churches within the Negros diocese of San Carlos. The mournful ritual was announced by the diocesan head, Bishop Gerardo Alminaza, during the Sancelan couple’s burial in Guihulngan, to call for justice and an end to the killings on Negros Island. He paid tribute to Dr. Sancelan, calling her “our people’s doctor [who] dedicated her life to end both the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of injustice.”

At least 106 cases of extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s watch have been recorded in Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental. In 2018, Alminaza already resorted to the ringing of church bells to express both the people’s mourning and protest over the spate of killings, including several farm workers and their pro-bono advocates, the lawyers Ben Ramos and Antonio Trinidad. (The latter two had been red-tagged, along with Alvarez and Sancelan, on tarpaulin posters and leaflets disseminated prior to their being killed.)

“Our island awaits the day when the blood from the pandemic of violence stops flowing,” Alminaza wrote in a pastoral message. “When will our priests in the diocese end burying victims of these orchestrated acts of terrorism?” he asked.

“As your pastor,” the bishop declared, “I am taking the mantle of the cause of their martyrdom. We stress that merely speaking about this senseless violence in our midst is not enough. Our collective outrage should move us to collectively act against it.”

Bishop Alminaza also called attention to the separate but parallel international initiatives to thoroughly investigate the continued extrajudical killings and other human rights violations under the Duterte regime. He said the International Criminal Court, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other agencies have more reasons to demand from the Philippine government accountability for the rampant violations and the absence of the rule of law.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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