[OPINION] In defense of our brave lawyers

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, or the NUPL, was founded in 2007 and is composed of human rights lawyers, as well as law students, paralegals, and legal workers, from all over the country, united by the common desire to defend, protect, and promote human rights, particularly the poor and the oppressed. It was formed to organize members of the legal profession to respond to harassment, intimidation, filing of trumped-up charges, and killing of human rights advocates, activists, dissenters, and lawyers engaged in human rights work in the Philippines. 

Aside from legal services, it does campaign and advocacy, education and training, research and publication, protection and welfare of lawyers, organization and expansion, and international solidarity.

In its 13 years of existence, it handled a wide array of cases involving human rights. It handled the criminal prosecution of Ret. Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, who was convicted for the abduction of two university students; the prosecution of the human traffickers and illegal recruiters of Mary Jane Veloso; provided legal assistance to families of victims of anti-drug operations and extrajudicial killings; and challenged the constitutionality of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, among others. 

During the pandemic, it handled the cases of the 21 residents of San Roque who were demanding food aid in April; 10 volunteers arrested in Marikina in May 2020; and 20 individuals who were arrested in the Pride March in Manila in June, among others. In April, NUPL and the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) represented 22 inmates from different jails in Metro Manila as they urged the Supreme Court to allow their temporary release in view of the threat of COVID-19 spreading in congested jails. In July, aided by NUPL, a petition led by former social welfare and development secretary Judy Taguiwalo was filed at the Supreme Court compelling the Duterte government to conduct mass testing. 

Today, with former Congressman Neri Colmenares and Edre Olalia as Chairperson and President respectively, NUPL currently has around 500 individual members all over the country, 19 chapters, 4 regional coordinative bodies, and 3 law student chapters in law schools in Metro Manila. Judges, prosecutors, members of the Public Attorney’s Office, law professors, practitioners, and law students all form part of the membership of the NUPL. It is an affiliate of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), which has consultative status with the United Nations. Since 2019, Olalia has been the transitional president of the IADL.

Personally, I know and have worked with NUPL lawyers in Metro Manila, Cebu City, and Cagayan de Oro. I have nothing but praise and admiration for their competence, integrity, and passion. As a professor of law of more than 30 years, I always tell my students that my objectives are to help them pass the bar and become lawyers, to train and assist them to master legal skills so they can provide their clients the best representation, and most of all to become great lawyers for big causes, for the country and the planet, for human rights, social and environmental justice, and especially for the poor and marginalized. 

Today, in this country, the best example of the great lawyer is the NUPL lawyer. For me in particular, I am constantly awed and amazed by the great work of Krissy Conti (who was my student in UP Law), Josa Deinla, Sol Taule, and Kathy Panguban in NUPL Manila; Ian Manticajon and Ian Sapayan of NUPL Visayas/Cebu; Czarina Musni of NUPL/Cagayan de Oro; and Dean Manny Quibod of NUPL/Davao. Joy Reyes, another NUPL member, works closely with me, and whatever good I am able to do now is because of our collaboration. And of course, the martyred Ben Ramos, who was a founding member of NUPL and to whose family I have become close to, and who stands out in our generation for his commitment and sacrifice. 

I must also acknowledge that I was close to NUPL founding Chair Romy Capulong, having served as his campaign aide in the 1987 senatorial elections. Together with Pepe Diokno, Romy showed me the path of alternative lawyering, which he once described as “a treasured journey of self-fulfillment.” He assured us “it will be the same for all those who will choose to tread this path.” If anything, these words of its founder should give our NUPL lawyers the strength to withstand the concerted attacks against them.

Red-tagging of the NUPL

It is unfortunate, if not deplorable, that these peoples’ lawyers who have spent much of their time and resources, if not their entire lives, to fight for the protection and promotion of human rights, particularly those of the marginalized and oppressed, are branded as lawyers of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Such reckless allegations and baseless insinuations not only bring danger to the members of the NUPL, but violate their rights to life, liberty, security, and the exercise of their profession. 

In fact, even with the filing of a complaint against members of the NTF-ELCAC (National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who is the vice-chairperson of the NTF-ELCAC; Southern Luzon Command chief Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr, the spokesperson of the task force; and Presidential Communications Operations Office Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy) before the Office of the Ombudsman, the red-tagging of the lawyer group continues. In spite of this, the efforts of the members of the NUPL to push back and continue to fight for the human rights of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized persist.

Lately, they have been attacked for their representation of two Aetas accused of terrorism in Central Luzon. The truth about this controversy is as clear as day to those of us who know how NUPL does its work. This is an attempt to discredit a great organization and undermine its work, and it will not succeed.

Brave lawyers

During its NUPL Founding Congress in September 2007, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno said the words now etched in the heart of every NUPL member: “By calling yourselves the ‘people’s lawyer,’ you have made a remarkable choice. You decided not to remain in the sidelines. Where human rights are assaulted, you have chosen to sacrifice the comforts of the fence for the dangers of the battlefield. But only those who choose to fight on the battlefields live beyond irrelevance.”

The NUPL would not be where it is now if not for the integrity of the work that it does and the trust given to it by those for whom it renders its services. It has been quick to respond to those who need its help. Its members are at the forefront of the attacks against the poor and marginalized, particularly with the crackdown against dissent and the unscrupulous red-tagging by government officials, especially members of the NTF-ELCAC.

Romy Capulong said, “We have brave clients. They deserve brave lawyers.” 

In the face of red-tagging and attacks against the legal profession, particularly the NUPL, I stand in solidarity with the members of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, the bravest of the brave, and am proud to call them as my colleagues, friends, and partners in advocating and fighting for human rights. – Rappler.com

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.