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Opinion

Lawyers in public service

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

To all aspiring lawyers: The Supreme Court (SC) has announced the holding of “digitalized examination process” for the 2022 Bar applicants on November 9, 13, 16 and 20. This certainly should augur well for Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla who needed lawyers who will serve people “out of love for country and patriotism” despite low pay in government.

A graduate of the University of the Philippines, College of Law in 1987, Remulla himself passed bar exams a year later. From day one office as Justice Secretary, Remulla came to realize the much complained about slow grind of justice in the country, partly attributable to the lack of dedicated government lawyers. Remulla noted with concern the DOJ alone has only one thousand lawyers deployed all over the Philippines.

Sadly, Remulla rued, the so many qualified lawyers in the Philippines were mostly “desk-bound” and not serving people in the field. Being in the government throughout his career as a lawyer, Remulla called upon his “compañeros” to render public service, especially to people in need of protection and defense against injustice but could not afford legal counsel.

Speaking in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay weekly breakfast news forum last Wednesday, the Justice Secretary disclosed having asked the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) headed by Persida Acosta to share some of the 2,000 PAO lawyers assigned to various parts of the country. After all, the PAO is one of the many attached agencies under Remulla at the DOJ.

Being in the service of the presidency as a Cabinet official is nothing new for the 61-year-old Justice Secretary. Remulla was formerly a Cabinet member during the shortened term of former president Joseph Estrada as head of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS). Subsequently, he ran and won for a congressional seat in his home province in Cavite. He gave up his second term as Representative of the 7th congressional district of Cavite after winning his re-election bid in this year’s elections last May 9.

Remulla was among the first batch of appointees of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) who handpicked his Cabinet officials last May 23. He took over from former Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra who now serves as head of the Office of Solicitor General. As Sol-Gen, Guevarra holds a Cabinet-ranked post but his office is administratively under DOJ. When he stepped down from the DOJ, Guevarra left to his successor several of the unfinished cases on the controversial extrajudicial killings (EJKs) during the term of former President Rodrigo Duterte.

In May this year, Guevarra bared that the Inter-Agency Committee (IAC) headed by the DOJ was reviewing 1,800 incidents of violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), including 263 allegedly committed by the New People’s Army (NPA). But the rest of EJK cases were allegedly committed during the all-out war against illegal drugs by the Philippine National Police (PNP). In his exit report as DOJ Secretary, Guevarra reported, there were 29 EJKs and torture cases that were delisted by the DOJ for lack of witnesses or lack of interest on the part of the complainants.

Remulla lamented as “disheartening” such lack of interest and cooperation of the victims and their families. This is not to mention, he added, the lack of eyewitness accounts and evidence to secure a conviction of the accused. He reassured the public these EJK cases remain in “active” files of DOJ while waiting for new leads or information from eyewitnesses to EJKs, or any other crimes for that matter. He reiterated the offer of DOJ to provide protection, under the Witness Protection Program, for anyone who can help serve the ends of justice.

Critics of the PBBM administration, however, accuse the DOJ of trying to put to the backburner the EJK cases to supposedly protect the father of Vice President Sara Duterte. “It’s the work of the enemies of the State to make us look bad and sometimes they are successful,” the Justice Secretary rued.

The DOJ Secretary promised no sacred cow in the prosecution of EJKs. Whether the perpetrators come from the uniformed services of the police or military, or from private armed groups, or even from the ranks of communist rebels, he pointed out.

“We will not choose who to do battle with (in court) but we will do battle with EJK violators,” Remulla vowed.

Staunch human rights advocates, however, claimed there were around 6,000 EJK cases that piled up from the controversial “Oplan Tokhang” of the PNP during the previous Duterte administration. As the Commander-in-chief, ex-president Duterte assumed full responsibility for policemen who carried out their duties in waging his all-out war against illegal drugs in our country. His most rabid critics formally charged ex-president Duterte with alleged “crimes against humanity” before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

During our face-to-face news forum held at the Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Remulla insisted anew the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate these alleged EJK cases. For one, he cited, the present administration stands by the decision of ex-president Duterte to pull out the Philippines from the ICC under the Rome Statute.

But out of “comity, friendship and respect” among nations and multilateral agencies, Remulla assuaged the ICC of being furnished a copy of the updated status report. The ICC gave the Philippine government until Sept. 8 this year to reply.

As of Remulla’s latest check with DOJ state prosecutors, there have been a dozen policemen undergoing litigation in at least five different murder cases filed in various Philippine courts. “It’s a work in progress in every quest we do as long as we have a job to do,” the DOJ Secretary promised.

For starters, Remulla has embarked on decongesting jails under the DOJ’s Bureau of Corrections to send all these criminals behind bars. Remulla remains confident that justice will be served for all those cases handled by DOJ lawyers doing the court battles in the name of public service.

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