Unidentified gunmen killed a crusading human rights lawyer in the central Philippines, police said Wednesday, in the latest attack targeting an attorney in the country.
Attorney Benjamin Ramos had finished paperwork for a client when he was fatally shot three times on Tuesday night by two men on a motorcycle in Kabankalan, a city in Negros Occidental province, initial police reports said.
Ramos, 56, was a founding member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a group providing pro-bono work for impoverished clients and who had taken on cases related to President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly drug war.
“We are shocked, devastated and enraged at the premeditated, cold-blooded murder of our colleague and fellow people’s lawyer,” NUPL leader Edre Olalia said, urging an investigation into the shooting.
Local police and the military had accused Ramos of being allied with communist rebels, an allegation the NUPL denied.
Human rights group Hustisya said it mourned the death of Ramos, adding that its members were enraged.
“We hold the Duterte regime accountable for the killing of attorney Ramos,” the group said in a statement.
“We call on the rest of the Filipino people to speak out against the killings, whether they be farmers, activists, lawyers, ordinary people. We cannot stomach a regime that kills to stay in power.”
Duterte’s government, however, condemned the lawyer’s slaying.
“Government authorities are conducting a speedy and impartial investigation with respect to the incident and pertinent agencies will do all they can to ensure that the perpetrators of this detestable atrocity are brought to justice,” Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
Duterte, he added, would “not allow any person or group of persons to violate any law and get away with it.”
‘This has got to stop’
The statement from Hustisya said the NUPL was representing relatives of eight people killed in the drug war, in a case in which it had filed murder charges against the president at the International Criminal Court in August.
NUPL leader and former congressman Neri Colmenares blamed the Duterte administration for creating an atmosphere that allowed Tuesday’s attack to happen. He said Duterte’s many verbal attacks against lawyers had emboldened brazen attackers.
“President Duterte, you are a lawyer. You know you cannot be attacked on the basis of the clients you choose to represent,” Colmenares said. “Your red tagging has led to the attack of attorney Ben. This has got to stop.”
Ramos was the 34th lawyer killed since Duterte, who came to power two years ago, vowed to clean up corruption and wipe out drugs. He made true on his promise by deploying police to carry out the war on drugs that has left nearly 5,000 dead, according to police statistics. But human rights groups claim the number is more than double the official figures.
Police claimed suspects were killed because they fought arresting officers. Duterte has promised to protect police officers, saying he would pardon them if they were convicted of killing suspects in the course of carrying out their duties.
Last year, Duterte told the national police not to be cowed by rights lawyers investigating alleged abuses.
“If they are obstructing justice, you shoot them,” Duterte said at the time.
The president also carries a list which, he has said, contains the names of judges, lawyers, and military and police personnel who are known drug protectors. At least three mayors on that list have been gunned down, including one whose home was raided last year.
The NUPL said one of its lawyers who represented women and children, Katherine Panguban, had also been severely criticized by police and the military for leading a fact-finding mission into the recent killings of nine farmers in the central city of Sagay.
The military alleged that the slain farmers were recruited by a communist rebel front organization, and blamed their deaths on a rivalry between factions within the guerrilla group.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines contributed to this report.