Last week, I was asked to speak before a webinar sponsored by the UP Portia Alumnae Association on my experiences as a human rights lawyer during martial law.
As many of you know, I began my career as a lawyer in the 1960s, trading the comforts and perks of being a corporate counsel in favor of being a lawyer for farmers, workers, student activists, and ordinary folks who would otherwise be deprived of legal representation because of their inability to afford the usual cost of legal services.
It was a difficult practice, especially for a lawyer newly-minted such as myself. It became even more difficult after Marcos declared martial law.
Yet despite the difficulties, which we faced, and the threats and harassment, which we endured, a few of us, a band of brothers were determined to pursue our convictions during those dark days.
We banded together and formed the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity, and Nationalism Inc. or MABINI. Our group, as I described in my speech, was “a response against the tide of injustice, abuse of power, and disregard for the rights of the people.”
The Marcos regime gained and consolidated power by sowing fear. Violence and intimidation were its main weapons. And for 34 years, it succeeded in silencing majority of the population. Yet our small group of human rights lawyers persevered, undeterred by the threats and actual acts of violence. It was this strength of conviction that helped us not only to endure the suffering but overcome the fear.
I shared this insight to the webinar participants. Lawyers are living in dangerous times. I had thought all along that the years of martial law were the most dangerous years for lawyers. Sadly, I was mistaken.
More lawyers have been insulted, bullied, threatened, and killed in the past five years than at any time in recent history.
But what disappoints and enrages many of our colleagues is the absence of outrage, even from our fellow lawyers. It is hard to believe that the acts of harassment and intimidation inflicted not only on the legal profession and the judiciary – for the violence has also claimed prosecutors and judges among its victims – but on the people as well are being disregarded or ignored. If the intent is to beat our profession into submission, the absence of a collective response may be seen as a sign that they have succeeded.
The strongly-worded statement from the Supreme Court condemning attacks on lawyers and the judiciary is, therefore, a most-timely declaration.
The High Tribunal was quoted widely in media as declaring: “We are all too aware that everything the court stands for must bend its arc toward ensuring that all its officers can fairly and equitably dispense their duties within the legal system, unbridled by the constant fear that such exercise may exact the highest cost.
“In this light, the court condemns in the strongest sense every instance where a lawyer is threatened or killed, and where a judge is threatened and unfairly labeled. We do not and will not tolerate such acts that only perverse justice, defeat the rule of law, undermine the most basic of constitutional principles, and speculate on the worth of human lives.
“To threaten our judges and our lawyers is no less than an assault on the judiciary. To assault the judiciary is to shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands. This cannot be allowed in a civilized society like ours. This cannot go undenounced on the court’s watch.”
The magistrates paid tribute to the “bravery of all the judges and lawyers who show up to administer justice in the face of fear. Let there be no doubt, the Supreme Court stands with them.”
The Supreme Court statement is a bold and audacious declaration. It provides comfort and courage for our besieged profession.
Unlike the Executive, the Supreme Court has no army to enforce its declarations. It only wields the moral force of its institutional authority. In these most difficult of times for lawyers and the judiciary, the High Tribunal stands as our beacon, pointing all of us to the course we should take, and shining a light that pierces through the darkest of nights.