Who protects the lawyers?

By: John Nery - @jnery_newsstand - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | March 09,2021 - 09:00 AM

The attempt on the life of lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen in Iloilo City on March 3 was particularly brutal: He was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head and in other parts of his body, and when paramedics brought him to the hospital (as veteran correspondent Nestor Burgos reported) the blue and yellow screwdriver was still embedded in his left temple. The human rights lawyer is now in stable condition; he is the fourth member of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers to survive an assassination attempt under the Duterte administration. But assassins on a motorcycle did reach a founding member of NUPL, Benjamin Ramos; he was shot dead in November 2018 in Kabankalan City.

Ramos was one of 56 lawyers killed since July 2016, when President Duterte took power. NUPL itself prepared a list; in July 2020, its list had 50 names on it, with Jovencio Senados, a senior city prosecutor in Manila, the latest victim entered into it. Rappler has updated the list to 56; Winston Intong of Malaybalay, Bukidnon, the 56th and latest victim, was killed in January 2021.

Some of the lawyers on this kill list were human rights lawyers (such as Ramos), environmental lawyers (like Mia Mascariñas Green, ambushed in Bohol in February 2017), public prosecutors (like Senados, or Madonna Joy Ednaco Tanyag, stabbed in Quezon City in June 2018, when she was five months pregnant), or counsel of accused drug traffickers (like Jonah John Ungab, killed in Cebu in February 2018).

Nine of the victims were judges, including two retired judges and one retired Court of Appeals justice; 11 were prosecutors or public attorneys, either still in government service or retired; six were lawyers in Cebu City (with a seventh killed in Cebu province).

I cannot remember another time when so many lawyers were killed in such a short span of time: As of January 2021, we have a total of 56 victims in 55 months, or a rate of one per month. The Marcos years were a terrible time, but there was nothing like this then. And what has the first lawyer-president since Ferdinand Marcos said about this slow-motion massacre?

Not a word.

I do not know most of the lawyers on the kill list; I do not know whether most of them were good lawyers or good persons. But it doesn’t matter. The existence of the list itself fills me with dread. We are used to lawyers serving as our protectors, our defenders in court and our champions outside it. As the idiom goes, they have our back. The first five years of the Duterte administration have shown us, however, just how vulnerable our own protectors are.

We have spoken of how the administration has weaponized the rule of law, turned it into a blunt weapon of intimidation or injustice. The killing of lawyers that has been enabled these last five years proves that the rule of law can also be attacked the old way: by assassinating the agents of the court.

* * *

A HIGH POINT. Journalist Lady Ann “Icy” Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago were finally freed last Friday, after three months in unjust detention, when Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Judge Monique Quisumbing Ignacio ordered their immediate release. Her order was one of those rare sightings: A ruling that was not only well-argued but well-written, with clarity as the organizing principle, and with no comma, or punctuation mark, out of place.

The following, for instance, may seem unremarkable, except that the simplicity of the telling is a result of clear logic and transparent writing. After noting specific “material details” whose inconsistencies and contradictions negated probable cause, Ignacio wrote: “These are not on trivial matters. Perhaps the color of the wall of the condominium unit or what Salem or Esparago were wearing can be considered trivial. But certainly details which touch on the existence of the subject firearms, ammunition, and explosives and possession by accused of these items cannot be regarded as minor or trivial. They are the very elements of the crimes for which they are being charged.”

If I read the Order right, Ignacio also hinted at the undue burden a slipshod prosecution places on the court. “And even if we brush aside these conflicting statements and testimonies and apply the presumption of regularity in the performance of official functions, the prosecution must be reminded that the court still has to formulate a coherent statement of facts that will form the basis of its finding of probable cause. In these cases, the court simply cannot do so.”

* * *

FATHER B. I played a small part in getting Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ to write for the Inquirer. Early in 2005, opinion editor Jorge Aruta asked me to sound off the great constitutionalist if he would consider writing for the newspaper. He was university president when I was in college, so there was that connection. But I was also under the impression that Father Bernas had a history of some sort with the Inquirer; perhaps there would be a need to first smoothen things out. With the help of a good friend who was teaching at the Ateneo Law School, Atty. Vannie Vallente, an early morning meeting in the Ateneo Rockwell campus was arranged. Would you like to write for us, I finally asked. Why not, Father Bernas replied. And then we were off, laughing and telling stories. There was no history to smoothen, only an appointment with my editor to set. Father Bernas had a sharp intellect, but he was also down-to-earth and irrepressibly witty. He graced our pages with his wisdom; he blessed our lives with his warmth.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Angelo Karlo Guillen, assassination attempt, Benjamin Ramos, Journalist Lady Ann “Icy” Salem, Kill List, NUPL

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