The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has no single Special Investigating Team (SIT) focusing on lawyer killings, a number that has risen to 62 under President Rodrigo Duterte.
"SITs are created for each incident of AO-35 type of violence, wherever it happens. There’s no single SIT especially dedicated to lawyer killings," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Tuesday, July 20.
AO 35 refers to political killings, handled by the Administrative Order (AO) 35 special committee of the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Guevarra said that he will trigger the AO 35 mechanism for the 62nd lawyer killed under Duterte, Hilda Mahinay-Sapie of Davao City, "if there is any semblance of political color to the killing, or connection with any kind of advocacy."
"We will let the police lead the investigation for now. The NBI will be on standby to provide any assistance needed," said Guevarra.
Sapie and husband Muhaimen Mohammad Sapie, who both host an opinion-oriented legal radio program, were killed by unidentified suspects on July 14. The Davao City police came up against a blank wall and had no leads on suspects or motives.
"Killings of lawyers (including prosecutors and judges) are tough nuts to crack. They’re usually well-planned," Guevarra said.
The 62 lawyers killed under Duterte are a staggering number compared to 90 lawyers killed in the combined 44 years from the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to Duterte's predecessor, the late Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
Guevarra said he was still checking with the NBI and the National Prosecution Service (NPS) if there were any additional charges filed in court for the 62 cases, or at least for new cases where a suspect had been identified. Latest data from the DOJ show there were only six cases that had indictments, the recent being for the killing of Cebu's Joey Luis Wee last November.
Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president Burt Estrada said he had been informed of one new case where charges were filed, but the family had requested to lie low out of fear.
"As to the other cases, I have dispatched our chapter affairs director to communicate with all chapters to update us on the status of all lawyer killings in their provinces," said Estrada.
Rappler has also spoken to a relative of the late former Manila chief inquest prosecutor Jovencio Senados, and learned that to the family's knowledge, no suspect has been identified in that case. Senados was killed in July 2020, during an alarming streak of killings of lawyers amid the pandemic.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) and IBP had signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to address lawyer killings.
"I will be making courtesy calls on the PNP and NBI leaderships in the coming weeks and we intend to follow up from the said office any updates on the numerous lawyer killings that have happened and also reiterate our request for them to give utmost attention to this cases in accordance with our MOAs," said Estrada.
The Supreme Court is currently studying 10 years' worth of information and reports on harassment and killings of lawyers, to see where institutional changes can be made to protect the legal profession.