A panel of international lawyers on Monday, March 18, said there has been a “sharp increase” of rights violations against Filipino lawyers, prosecutors, and judges since the start of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The panel included lawyers from Belgium, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and the United States, belonging to international lawyers’ groups International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA) and Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation (DELF).

The panel reviewed 13 incidents of attacks against members of the Philippine bar, conducting  interviews and conferences with government officials, NGOs, the Commission on Human Rights, legal professionals, victims and families of victims in Metro Manila and Iloilo from March 14 to 18.

Since July 2016, legal professionals have been suffering from attacks. The killing of human rights lawyer Ben Ramos in November last year prompted the panel to come to the Philippines.

“We have visited other countries where there has been a high degree of criminalization of lawyers because of the execution of their duties and defense of people but we have not visited any country where there has been such a high degree of extrajudicial killings, harassment and surveillance of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, and also now we’re learning, paralegals as well whom we consider also to be part of the legal profession,” said lawyer Suzanne Adely from the United States’ National Lawyers Guild.

“That does not mean that we’ve looked into this matter in every country in the world but there are…the reason that we came here in the first place is there have been extensive reports about this,” she added.

Patterns in killings
According to the panel’s review of data, there are “patterns” in killings.
“[T]here are patterns suggesting a connection between the killings and the actions of the PNP and AFP. There are recurrent elements sustaining such connection,” the data revealed.

Among the elements they noted included Duterte’s public declarations targeting lawyers; lawyers being tagged, harassed and surveilled before being killed; a lack of sufficient investigation; and the killings involving masked, professional shooters on motorbikes who use .22 caliber guns with a silencer.

A culture of impunity
The panel pointed out that Duterte’s declarations and “almost complete impunity of offenders give police, military and effectively anyone a license to harass and kill.”

They urged Duterte to “refrain from publicly attacking lawyers and instead publicly condemn all attacks against lawyers, prosecutors and judges.”

They also urged the government to cease  red-tagging and public disclosure of drug lists, as well as ensure the safety of lawyers and the independence of the judiciary.

Under the Philippine jurisprudence, red-tagging is defined as “the act of labelling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy… by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’”

“We learned that lawyers in the Philippines have been red-tagged for defending human rights, defending political dissidents, and defending victims of human rights violations,” the panel said.

No hand in killing
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, for his part, dismissed the panel’s findings. He said they should not attribute the deaths to the president as the killings “could be personally motivated.”

“They cannot attribute the lawyers’ killing to PRRD (Duterte) and his administration. The killing could be personally motivated,” he said.

“What do they mean by their statement that the Administration should refrain from attacking lawyers? The administration has not attacked any lawyer in any way and/or manner. Coming as it does from lawyers who should know better, blaming the administration for the lawyers’ deaths is gross intellectually challenged,” he added.

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