Philippine judiciary

In alarming rise of PH lawyer killings, what is being done?

Lian Buan

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In alarming rise of PH lawyer killings, what is being done?
The government 'is very much concerned,' says Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, but is there a special inquiry that is looking at patterns?

Dearth of eyewitnesses. Professional killers. Little evidence.

These are some of the reasons offered by the government in explaining its difficulty in solving killings of Filipino lawyers, which has reached an alarming rate since 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte took office.

“Many of these killings had been carefully planned and were probably carried out by professional killers, that’s why it has been more difficult to crack these cases compared to ordinary crimes that happen on the streets,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Wednesday, November 25.

Two days earlier on Monday, November 23, lawyer Joey Luis Wee was killed as he was walking up the stairs to his office in Cebu City. Wee is now the 53rd lawyer killed since July 2016, which includes 8 judges and 10 prosecutors.

“The government is very much concerned about the increasing number of crimes committed against lawyers, prosecutors, and judges,” said Guevarra, adding that more National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) field operatives have been deployed to Cebu City and Palawan to hunt for the killers.

A week ago on November 17, 35-year-old lawyer Eric Jay Magcamit was shot on his way to a hearing in Narra, Palawan, marking him as the 52nd death in the legal profession in that timeframe.

For University of the Philippines (UP) constitutional law professor John Molo, there has to be “an independent inquiry on the pattern and rate of these killings.”

In 2018, an international delegation of lawyers visited the Philippines to look at lawyer killings and concluded that there was a lack of genuine investigation into them. Policemen, the foreign lawyers said, were not conducting initial investigations, and prosecutors were left to wait for police reports that never came.

Independent inquiry

“The DOJ handles individual cases but, with 53 lawyers dead, we need to look at the forest and understand what’s causing this. Only then can we stop it,” said Molo.

Asked if the Department of Justice (DOJ) has a special investigation to spot patterns, Guevarra merely said: “As long as there are leads and the trail does not turn cold, our law enforcement agents and special investigating teams will continue to hunt for the perpetrators of these crimes.”

According to a Freedom of Information (FOI) disclosure in March this year, the DOJ Administrative Order (AO) 35 task force, which is looking at the pattern of extrajudicial killings, handled only two cases of lawyer killings at the time – those of human rights lawyers Ben Ramos and Anthony Trinidad, both killed by riding-in-tandem-gunmen in Negros Island in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Since the FOI disclosure in March, 6 more lawyers were killed, including Manila Judge Maria Teresa Abadilla and days later, Wee and Magcamit.

“A timely and practicable plan of action (not a ‘policy statement’) to stop these killings is the priority,” Molo added.

At the DOJ’s budget hearing at the Senate last week, Senator Richard Gordon pointed out the alarming rate, saying that in 2019 alone, there were 11 lawyers killed. Gordon’s source is the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Gordon and the PNP’s count for 2019 is two more than Rappler’s own tally, which is only 9 for 2019. Rappler compiled the tally based on available news data and reports from lawyer groups. 

“The efforts are not ceasing, they’d like to inform you that they are investigating all of these cases but they admit that in some of these instances that you mentioned, there is a dearth of eyewitnesses, and very little evidence to proceed on, but for other cases, they are pursuing every lead,” said Senator Sonny Angara.

Angara, as the budget sponsor, answered interpellations during the plenary budget debates on behalf of the DOJ.

Judicial Marshal bill

Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta has pushed for a Judicial Marshal bill, and has proposed that those marshals not only be given the power to secure court houses, but also act as the main law enforcement agency for court-related offenses.

Senators supported this during the budget debate, with Angara saying P50 million could kickstart the program once the bill passes into law.

Senator Panfilo Lacson said the Supreme Court has been consistently following up on the bill. Senate President Tito Sotto said that “with recent events, it’s all the more important.”

“Equally important, we need to reflect on the Filipino public’s reaction to the 53 killings,” said Molo.

“Just this September, people in Haiti took to the streets when a prominent advocate was shot in his home. In Buxar, India, protests erupted when a 35-year-old lawyer was assassinated near a gas station – the 5th lawyer killed in 8 months. Here, we have 53 dead. Yet, it feels that the public remains unmoved. It is a bitter pill, but we need to ask ourselves why,” Molo said.

Local human rights groups have highlighted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the rising number of lawyer killings as a sign of a declining rule of law in the country.

But in a widely-criticized “watered down” resolution in October, the UNHRC shied away from a tougher international scrutiny of the Duterte government, crediting government efforts mostly from the DOJ. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.