crimes in the Philippines

Abra lawyer’s murder sends chills even to Mindanao legal circles

Herbie Gomez

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Abra lawyer’s murder sends chills even to Mindanao legal circles

SLAIN. Lawyer Saniata Alzate was slain by still unidentified assailants in front of her house in Bangued, Abra on September 14, 2023.

Saniata Alzate's Facebook Page

(1st UPDATE) Lawyer Maria Saniata Alzate's killing bears a haunting resemblance to the murder of Union of Peoples' Lawyers in Mindanao Vice-Chairman Juan Macababbad in 2021

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Organized lawyers in Mindanao called on authorities to bring the killers of Abra lawyer Maria Saniata Alzate to justice, and for stronger and synchronized inter-agency initiatives in government to protect lawyers.

The cold-blooded killing of Alzate near her residence on Santiago Street in Bangued town on Thursday, September 14 has had chilling effects on legal communities across the country.

Alzate, wife of a former regional judge and former Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) president in Abra, was shot at close range while she was in her car. Two gunmen fled on a motorcycle after they took turns shooting the lawyer.

“[The] persisting attacks on lawyers underscore an urgent imperative for more robust and coordinated action across all branches of government. It is their solemn duty to provide the protection of life that is so urgently required, more than seeking protection from scrutiny the allocation and spending of public funds, a demand that some elected officials are all too eager to shield with unwarranted confidentiality,” said Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) chairman Antonio Azarcon.

In February, Alzate secured a favorable ruling on a Writ of Amparo petition to protect her clients. A judge ordered the police to maintain distance from Remedios Billedo and her son, Excel, who were reportedly subjected to abduction, detention, and torture by authorities in Bangued.

“It’s impunity a hundredfold… Lady Justice is held hostage; the defenders of the rule of law are now under siege,” Cagayan de Oro-based human rights lawyer Beverly Selim-Musni told Rappler on September 17.

Musni said she was worried Alzate’s murder would send chills even to judges similarly inclined to issue protective writs unless the assailants are arrested and brought to justice as soon as possible.

She noted the gunmen wore no masks, suggesting the crime was the handiwork of the “mighty and powerful” who feel they can get away with murder without consequences.

“The idea that gunmen tend to spare women who fight for human rights is no longer true. Being in the frontline in defense of human rights does not distinguish gender anymore,” Musni said.

UPLM spokesman Arvin Dexter Lopoz said the brazen daylight assassination of Alzate bore a haunting resemblance to the unresolved killing of Juan Macababbad in September 2021.

Macababbad, who was UPLM’s vice-chairman at that time, was shot dead in front of his house in Surallah town, South Cotabato. 

“We demand justice for Atty. Alzate, justice for all victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs), and an end to the prevailing state of impunity that allows such atrocities to persist,” read part of a statement released by UPLM on Friday, September 15.

Like in Alzate’s murder, the gun attack on Macababad was carried out by two men who used a motorcycle.

Macababbad was known among the underprivileged as their trusted legal advocate. He represented indigent clients in both criminal and civil cases, offering his services pro bono.

Based on the UPLM’s count in 2021, Macababbad was the 58th lawyer and the third member of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) to be killed during the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte.

The Macababbad murder case remains unresolved to this day.

“Both Alzate and Macababbad were selfless human rights defenders who courageously treaded the perilous path of public interest lawyering, an endeavor fraught with undeniable and immediate danger,” the UPLM stated.

Former Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Misamis Oriental president Katrina Mordeno said the government must address the problem of the dangers faced by lawyers, rebuild trust in the legal system, and take stronger actions to prevent future impunity, rather than just condemning such attacks.

Mordeno said, “Ours has always been a country of laws, but it will be difficult for us to remain so should our legal professionals continue to be fraught with the certainty of risk against their lives. How else do we foster a deepened trust in our laws, and by default, the government which it has birthed when even those who are called to bring justice suffer injustice themselves?”

She said the impunity underscores the need to recalibrate the legal system to ensure that stronger measures are in place to deter such crimes.

“While I am committed to uniting with those who condemn this culture of impunity, it is simply no longer enough that our collective sentiment remains but an epitaph to our faith in this democracy,” Mordeno said. –

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    These murders without resolution will intimidate a lot of people from speaking out – and will eventually kill our freedom in the Philippines. There are of course people who know the perpetrators of these murders. It’s time for them to speak out and identify the muderers and their boses.

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Herbie Gomez

Herbie Salvosa Gomez is coordinator of Rappler’s bureau in Mindanao, where he has practiced journalism for over three decades. He writes a column called “Pastilan,” after a familiar expression in Cagayan de Oro, tackling issues in the Southern Philippines.