It’s open season against Filipino lawyers and judges who are critical of the human rights record of the Philippine government. In a short span of seven years, 37 lawyers and judges have been brutally murdered, making the Philippines one of the most dangerous places for lawyers and judges on the planet.
This seems like a scene in Hamlet VI where Shakespeare wrote, “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers,” which ironically became the rallying cry of lawyer bashers. But this interpretation of Shakespeare is misguided since the great bard was in fact paying homage to lawyers as the frontline defenders of democracy. In his play, Shakespeare recognized that the first thing any potential tyrant must do to eliminate freedom is to “kill all the lawyers,” which sends chills to the bones because this is exactly happening in the Philippines today.
According to a news report in the United States, majority of lawyers in the country do not feel safe in their jobs as a result of the current economic downturn. When job losses have become daily fodder due to the U.S. economic crisis, it is understandable that lawyers are going to be hit too.
In the Philippines, however, lawyer mortality is not due to drop-outs or lay-offs because of the economic slowdown, but literally lawyers and judges getting killed. That makes the legal profession a very dangerous ambition.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) has been monitoring the killings of lawyers and judges involved in human rights advocacy since 1999. The group reported that 22 lawyers have been killed since 2001 and 15 judges murdered since 1999. It also noted a sharp increase in the number of killings of lawyers and judges since 2001: from 15 lawyers in 2006 to 22 by 2008, and 10 judges in 2006 to 15 in 2008.
NUPL Secretary-General Neri Javier Colmenares said that “attacks against human rights lawyers are being perpetrated by a government antagonistic to the fact these lawyers provide services to human rights violations.” The group also revealed that attacks on lawyers and judges include death threats, surveillance, labelling and inclusion in the military’s order of battle, among others.
Violent attacks against lawyers in the Philippines are nothing new. During the regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it was common practice by his loyalist military to harass and threaten lawyers who represented labour and student activists who were outspoken critics of the Marcos dictatorship. On November 13, 1986, labour leader and lawyer Rolando Olalia, chairman of the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and his driver, Leonor Alay-ay were found brutally murdered in Antipolo, Rizal. Followers of former Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and ranking leaders of the Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabansa (RAM) were suspected in the assassination of Olalia.
Rolando Olalia was a mainstream lawyer until his father, Felixberto Olalia, urged him to take up the workers’ cause. When his father died, Olalia took over the helm of the KMU whose membership grew in number as they challenged the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, as well as Filipino and foreign industrialists. At the time of his assassination, Olalia was also secretary-general of Partido ng Bayan, or People’s Party.
For more than twenty years, justice has remained elusive for Rolando Olalia and his driver Alay-ay as their killers remain on the loose. While state-sponsored violence and terror against advocates of human rights and social justice continue to escalate under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, another KMU leader, labour lawyer Remigio Saladero, Jr., KMU chief counsel, was arrested on October 23, 2008, by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Military Intelligence Group of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Saladero was accused, along with 71 others, of multiple murder and attempted murder in Mindoro Oriental. A high-profile labour lawyer, Saladero has personally argued before the Supreme Court against the constitutionality of the repressive Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR) policy of the Arroyo government. According to the NUPL, there could be no other reason for Attorney Saladero’s arrest than his human rights advocacy and scathing critique of Mrs. Arroyo.
Last February 16, 2009, barely a week after lawyer Saladero and five other activists were released from prison, another murder case has been filed against them. This has prompted the organizers of Free Atty. Saladero et al Coalition to declare: “For a full-time lawyer, a columnist, a resource person in paralegal training, a diabetic and survivor of two strokes, such allegations against Atty. Saladero are incredibly unbelievable if not plain stupid.”
Frustrated with the government’s failure to address the problem of killings and other rights abuses, the NUPL has resolved to seek the help of the United Nations in stopping the continuing attacks against Filipino lawyers and judges. Together with the Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (CODAL), the NUPL announced that they would file a complaint before the United Nations against the Philippine government for failing to protect lawyers and judges who are under siege.
The killings of lawyers and judges in the Philippines have put the criminal justice system in great jeopardy. Since most of the victims represent human rights violations against the state’s security apparatus, these killings have also pushed the cause of human rights in the Philippines into a dark period. Because these killings create an environment of fear and intimidation, the task of dispensing justice becomes more than doubly impossible.
Human Rights Watch has described a “climate of impunity” in the Philippines, where the justice system suffers from serious credibility. The killings of lawyers and judges have only deepened public distrust in the justice system.
The idea of silencing lawyers in order to destroy individual freedom has been around for centuries. During the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell tried to repress individual freedoms by prohibiting more than three barristers congregating outside of court. Cromwell worried that the greatest threat to his tyrannical decrees was the collective commitment of the London Society of Barristers to the principles of freedom expressed in the Magna Carta.
The Nazi leader and despot Adolf Hitler once asserted: “I shall not rest until every German sees that it is a shameful thing to be lawyer.” To Hitler, destroying lawyers was necessary in order to destroy the rights of individuals.
Lawyers have played a significant role in establishing and defending democratic institutions everywhere in the world. They have become the primary defenders of the people’s rights as their advocates in court, or they have contributed largely to the drafting of people’s constitutions, or in the field of commerce, where they have been instrumental in writing and negotiating contracts between businessmen. From a historical perspective, the power of the people has always been tied inextricably to the influence of lawyers. Writing about democracy in America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “I cannot believe that a republic could subsist at the present time if the influence of lawyers in public business did not increase in proportion to the power of the people.”
In the Philippines today, if you happen to be a human rights or labour lawyer, you stand between the abuse of governmental power and the individual. As a lawyer, you could find yourself standing in the crossfire between the military and police on one hand, and the activist, labour leader or peasant organizer on the other. As a judge, you are sworn to be fair and to uphold the law in dispensing justice, but you, too, can also be an endangered species if you allow your conscience to rule against the mighty state.
The persecution of Atty. Saladero, KMU chief counsel, by the Arroyo government amounts to persecution of the hundreds of workers, urban poor, peasant organizations and other marginalized sectors that he represents. Saladero’s sympathizers are right when they said that “persecution of people’s lawyer is persecution of people.”
There is an ominous sign that the killings of lawyers and judges in the Philippines will only get worse as President Arroyo and her military apparatus become bolder in silencing opposition to her repressive government and her ambition to stay in power beyond 2010. This could very well be the death knell to justice and democracy in the Philippines.