Philippine Supreme Court Condemns Murders of Lawyers, Threats to Judges

Aie Balagtas See and Nonoy Espina
Manila and Bacolod, Philippines
Philippine Supreme Court Condemns Murders of Lawyers, Threats to Judges Philippine justices take part in a session of the full bench of the Supreme Court in Manila, June 19, 2018.

In a rare statement on Tuesday, the entire bench of the Philippine Supreme Court condemned the murder of lawyers and threats against judges in recent years, calling these “an assault on the judiciary.”

The country’s top court also asked the lowers courts and law enforcement to compile by next month information about all such killings and intimidation over the last 10 years, so it could decide on the next course of action, which could include amendments to several rules.

“Every threat to a lawyer or a judge that prevents them from exercising their functions has very serious repercussions on the idea that the rule of law must be accessible in an impartial and transparent manner to all parties,” the Supreme Court justices said in its statement.

“In this light the court condemns in the strongest sense every instance where a lawyer is threatened or killed, or every instance where a judge is threatened or unfairly labelled.”

The Supreme Court issued the statement after New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last week that 110 lawyers had been slain in the Philippines since 1972. Of those killed, 61 were slain since 2016, when President Rodrigo Duterte took office, the watchdog group said.

“More lawyers have been killed in the five years since President Rodrigo Duterte took office than under any other government in Philippine history, HRW said in a statement that cited local media news website Rappler’s data on lawyer killings.

“Many of the high-profile attacks involved members of the NUPL, which represents leftist activists as well as victims of human rights violations. … Lawyers in the Philippines have a long history of representing victims of human rights violations, making them targets as well.”

HRW was referring to the National Union of People’s Lawyers, a group providing pro-bono work for impoverished clients and who had taken on cases related to the Duterte’s administration’s deadly war on illegal drugs.

In a joint letter on the eve of the statement by the high court, more than 130 lawyers asked the top justices to institute reforms in the issuance of search warrants.

The Supreme Court said it would take steps to address concerns over often violent and deadly law enforcement operations, such as coming up with rules on the use of body cameras while serving search and arrest warrants, and similar measures possibly for anti-drug operations.

Among the signatories to the lawyers’ letter were many who represent people challenging a 2020 anti-terror law, and many lawyers themselves challenging the same law.

Rights groups here claim that that some of the anti-terror law’s provisions are designed to crack down on legitimate dissent.

There was no immediate reaction from the Duterte administration to the statement issued by the court.

‘Wayward elements’

The Supreme Court justices also ordered an investigation into a judge being recently named a communist rebel sympathizer.

That judge had dismissed charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives against a journalist and a labor union leader earlier this month.

The Supreme Court justices said they were “aware that there are wayward elements who, in their zeal to do what they think is necessary, would simply brush aside the limitations in our law as mere obstacles.”

They said such acts “should never be countenanced for it is only in the enjoyment of our inalienable and indivisible rights that our freedoms become meaningful.”

“We have coordinated with all concerned to provide security and counselling to the judges concerned,” the top court’s justices said.

They are also “ready to provide or coordinate security arrangements for any judge or justice that is similarly threatened,” the justices said.

‘A very good start’

Edre Olalia, president of the NUPL that monitors attacks on lawyers, said most of those killed were counsels for families of those slain in Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, and for groups that have questioned some of the president’s policies.

NUPL said it was glad the Supreme Court issued such a statement.

 “It is generally both comforting and reassuring to the legal community even [though] it took some precious time to happen and at great cost,” NUPL’s Olalia said.

“At this crucial juncture when the other institutions have defaulted on us, we fervently welcome these bold and unequivocal declarations, initial steps and further plans from our very own refuge.”

Two NUPL members have been victims of attacks since 2018.

One of them, Benjamin Ramos, a human rights lawyer who was shot and killed in central Negros Occidental province in November 2018.

Local police and the military had accused Ramos of being allied with communist rebels, an allegation the NUPL denied.

And this month, another NUPL member, Angelo Karlo Guillen, was critically injured in a knife attack, also in the central Philippines.

Guillen is one of the petitioners questioning the anti-terror law before the Supreme Court.

Former Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te called the Supreme Court’s statement “a very good start” and said he was “gratified" that the statement was strong, clear, and unanimous.”

Te, who belongs to the Free Legal Assistance Group, said it was “significant that the court did not just simply stop at expressing concern or solidarity but also gave specific and clear instructions with a definite and short timeline for compliance.”



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