[OPINION] Lawyers of the Philippines, unite!

Last night, in the blog of the European Journal of International Law, I saw this disturbing headline –  “Young Philippine Lawyers Arrested Today for “Obstruction of Justice” in the Philippines Drugs War”.

That the blog entry was written by an esteemed colleague, Dr Diane Desierto, a tenured Associate Professor of Human Rights Law and Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, and a colleague in the University of the Philippines College of law, assured me that this was not fake but serious news. A fellow graduate of Yale Law School, I consider Professor Desierto as a one of the world’s top international lawyers and I always pay attention to her posts.

Attorneys Jan Vincent Sambrano Soliven, Lenie Rocel Elmido Rocha, and Romulo Bernard Bustamante Alarkon work for the family law firm, Desierto and Desierto Law Firm. Last Thursday, August 14, they were arrested earlier in Makati City, “while they were monitoring the police’s implementation of a search warrant on the premises of the Times bar that the police have dubbed a “drug den”. The lawyers had identified themselves as legal counsels for the owner and were there to observe the search of the premise.

According to Prof. Desierto, “Because two cabinets were locked and could not be opened, the police got a search warrant to inspect the cabinets. Our client asked the firm to send lawyers to monitor and watch the search of those two cabinets to safeguard against any planting of evidence or theft. Standard procedure. The police opened the cabinets, took their inventory, and then turned to my three young lawyers and said they had no authority to be there. My lawyers respectfully said they were legal counsels of the owner and were just sent by the firm to take notes and photograph the opening of the cabinets. But instead, one of the police team members thought they were being “arrogant” and immediately arrested them on a charge of 'obstruction of justice' (punishable with minimum 6 months imprisonment, maximum 6 years imprisonment). The police did not explain why, and how, the passive and quiet acts of note-taking and phone camera photography of cabinets being opened amounted to an 'obstruction of justice' under Philippine law.

As of noon time Friday, August 15, the young lawyers are still detained and unless the Supreme Court asks fast on a petition that is being filed today will likely spend the weekend in detention.

Professor Desierto shared on Facebook the stories of her young colleagues. I share excerpts of her post below:

“JV Soliven is a talented young law professor at Lyceum of the Philippines College of Law, who initially left law practice to become in-house counsel, and later on rejoined law practice when he saw my call to hire lawyers under our banner of principled ethical lawyering and efficient, non-political problem-solving. JV is a proud alumnus of Pamantasang Lungsod ng Maynila Law School. He is stoic, has a quiet sense of humor, plays the guitar and sings very well, and when he thinks I'm not looking, is actually always looking out for his younger colleagues in the firm. He is also one of the best young lawyers I have ever worked with – capable of patiently combing through stacks of evidence to find solutions for our client's problems, never overpromising but instead always overdelivering on solutions. Last night, when I spoke with him before they were forced into the cell, he was pale, shocked, afraid of the officers who kept yelling at them – and it was the first time I saw his stoicism slip out of concern for his two younger colleagues and the prospect of spending the night with 200 other detainees and becoming a litigant for the first time....

Lenie Rocel Rocha is a vibrant, warm, intelligent, and kind 25-year-old – the youngest in my firm – and extremely talented in international law, legal writing, and articulate at oral advocacy. As one of University of San Carlos Law in Cebu's top grads, she represented the Philippines as our National Champion at the International Rounds of the Jessup Moot Competition in Washington DC. Lenie is the daughter of a policeman in the Visayas, and she came to Manila for the first time to work in our firm.... Lenie has a sunny smile, and last night when I spoke with her on video before they were forced into their shared cells with 200 other detainees, I saw Lenie's innocence and idealism falter. She had so many tears and was bravely trying to show me that she was okay....

Romulo Bernard Alarkon – RB for short – is the kindest humanitarian lawyer I have ever worked with, and one so suited to litigation. RB hails from the same law school as the President of the Philippines - the powerful San Beda Law . . . RB supports family and friends, and began his career as a nurse caring for others, teaching English to students, and generally ministering to others' needs. He is a golden kind soul and a rare find these days in an era of cynicism and despair . . . RB has been experiencing health problems recently, and just came back from medical leave when he even volunteered to help his colleagues on this routine monitoring of the implementation of a search warrant.... I am proud of RB and it is of his health that I am worried the most and why I have gone without sleep for the past 18 hours trying to get him released from illegal arbitrary detention...”

This is not the first and the last time lawyers have been arrested and harassed for doing their work. Some have even been killed in the line of duty. During the Marcos era, lawyers Larry Ilagan, Marcos Risonar, and Antonio Arellano were illegally arrested. The Supreme Court failed us then. I hope they will not do so now.

I make mine the statement of the Manananggol (Manlaban) sa EJK:

“The arrest of three young lawyers, who were monitoring the service of a search warrant, highlights the complete degradation of law enforcement and the collapse of order in the country. As counsel of the property owner, the three lawyers were legally entitled to be present during the search. Search by police of private premises, if with color of law, requires witnesses. . .

Lawyers while in the legitimate exercise of their profession are considered officers of the court and aides to the administration of justice. Hence, they are entitled to due courtesy and respect.

Arresting, detaining, and charging them, ironically, with obstruction of justice shows how police have become brutal and high-handed in their operations, especially in those involving drugs. What more can they be toward people who know nothing about the law?

We soundly denounce the arrest of lawyers while in the peformance of their duties. This blatant show of excess and abuse by the police is a clear disregard of the law and independence of the legal profession, a direct and inevitable result of Duterte's unrelenting anti-drug war. Police high on power have gone wild and senseless, with only the barest regard for law or order.

Manlaban demands the immediate release of the lawyers and the dropping of charges. And not only will we stand by our colleagues in the profession who are at the frontlines, we join them in battle for reason and sanity. Police should expect countersuits as lessons in law and pain of penalty so timely due.”

Lawyers of the Philipines unite! Professor Desierto is right about JV, Lenie, and RB: “They could be you. They could be me. Today it's them. Just look in the mirror. Tomorrow it can be any of us.” – Rappler.com

Follow the author: tonylavs on Facebook and on Twitter

READ related stories: