Lawyers under siege

Published October 2, 2019, 12:15 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President
Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

The reconvening of the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties (CLCL) last week could not have been more auspicious, albeit regrettable. The CLCL was founded in 2006 at a time when our civil liberties and democratic rights were under threat. Today, we find ourselves again closing ranks against threats to the rights and freedoms we restored 33 years ago at EDSA.

The manifesto issued on that day clearly laid out the role of lawyers and law students in these uncertain times:

“Members of the legal profession have the duty to help in the administration of justice, uphold the rule of law, and defend constitutional rights. All these are under attack today. It is therefore imperative that members of the legal profession and law students unite to defend civil liberties and constitutional rights from the relentless onslaught under the current administration.”

The gathering was a reunion of human rights lawyers, particularly compatriots from the martial law era. The new breed of lawyers who have taken up the mantle of human rights lawyering were also in attendance, as well as law students whom we expect will continue the fight through the next decades. But the convivial atmosphere also carried with it the weight of the challenge ahead. This message was clearly delivered when news came that just a few hours before the gathering began, a lady human rights lawyer survived an ambush in Capiz.

According to the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a total of 47 judges, prosecutors, and lawyers have been killed since 2016. This tally, if accurate, drives home one point: it is not only human rights that is under siege. Human rights lawyers are also under threat. Publicly vilified and branded as “enemies of the state” by the authorities, human rights lawyers have become targets for assassins.

The late senator Jose W. Diokno, the eminent nationalist and civil libertarian who founded the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) during martial law, once wrote about the dilemma facing human rights lawyers under an authoritarian regime: “For a lawyer to seek justice from a regime that systematically violates human rights is to recognize the legitimacy of that regime; yet to forbear is to leave the oppressed defenseless, and to acquiesce to the rule of repression. Every defeat a lawyer suffers is a rape of justice by force; yet every victory he gains polishes the image of the regime and prolongs its reign. This excruciating dilemma has led some lawyers to abandon the practice of law and adopt other roles, occasionally at the cost of imprisonment or death.”

The creation of the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity, and Nationalism, Inc. (MABINI) was our way of responding to this dilemma. We believed that as Filipinos first and human rights lawyers second, we must take a more active stand against dictatorial rule. We would appear in court, give lectures on civil liberties and join rallies. We were active participants in the February, 1986, EDSA Revolution that ended martial rule.

But even at its most repressive period, the martial law regime considered human rights lawyers as a necessary inconvenience. Our presence was tolerated in order to provide a veneer of respect for the rule of law. Human rights lawyers were subjected to military surveillance, and some of us were even openly labelled as subversives. The killing of human rights lawyers, however, was unheard of and is only a recent development.

I am reminded of the timely words again from Ka Pepe Diokno, written as part of a message to young lawyers: “A lawyer must work in freedom; and there is no freedom when conformity is extracted by fear, and criticism silenced by force.”

Without a doubt, these overt threats and killings are intended to silence the ranks of human rights lawyers. But to keep silent would be to turn our backs on our calling. It would mean leaving the rule of law and the Constitution at the mercy of those intent on its desecration.

Human rights lawyers must close ranks. We must draw strength from each other and the ideals that made us choose to become lawyers in the first place, as stated in clear and unequivocal language by the distinguished civil libertarian former Justice J.B.L. Reyes: “No master but law, no guide but conscience, no aim but justice”

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