The following article by Edre U. Olalia, president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers of the Philippines and member if the IADL Bureau, was originally published in the Washington Post of 20 November 2018: 

There was a time in the Philippines when giving one’s business card or wearing a pin with the logo of the scales of justice invariably elicited respect and deference. Police and military officers would step aside lest they get into “trouble.” Being a lawyer was a great source of pride — regrettably, even hubris.

Not anymore. Especially when lawyers work in human rights or in advocacy — lawyers whose calling is to serve peasants, laborers, indigenous peoples, migrant workers and activists in a country where the standard of justice is skewed in favor of the tiny political and economic elite.

Benjamin Ramos was one of these lawyers. He was a tireless champion of the defenseless and powerless who chose a career away from the glitz of the lifestyle of the best hotshot lawyers or the sanctimoniousness of the armchair lawyers who bash those working on the ground.

Ramos was one of the best lawyers money can’t buy. He burned the midnight oil and turned weekends into weekdays helping poor farmers organize to fight injustice. He represented landless peasants massacred in a parched sugar land, a community organizer murdered in Himamaylan City and student activists labeled as subversives by the state’s large arsenal of dubious legal tools.

So Ramos, like many of his colleagues committed to similar causes, came into the crosshairs of those whose big toes he had stepped on: the big landlords, the mining corporations, the police, the military and their mercenary vigilantes.

He was accused of being a member of the underground armed rebel movement. He received threats, was tailed, and even taunted by the military behind his back while he cross-examined a witness.

On Nov. 6, they came for him. Ramos was shot three times by what have become normalized hit squads — a gunman riding in the back of a motorcycle — while he was taking a cigarette break (you should have quit, Ben) in front of a small, rural convenience store. He had earlier finished yet another legal paper for yet another client who can only pay for his services with their precious fish, fruits and vegetables. Reports said Ramos was even able to kick one of his assailants — he wasn’t going down without a fight.

Benjamin Ramos became the 34th lawyer killed since President Rodrigo Duterte — another lawyer who has turned taunting, abuse and threats into “rule of law” — took office and the law of the rulers broke the justice system.

Duterte has verbally attacked human rights defenders in public and scoffed at them for criticizing his bloody “war on drugs.” He goads his security forces to treat us as enemies rather than as partners in the justice system. This has emboldened the police and the military, resulting in arrests, tailing and even harassment suits against lawyers.

Ramos was funny and sometimes rightfully grim, but determined, filled with so many novel and bright ideas. He was 56 and a father of three children. He was the head of the local chapter of a nationwide group of people’s lawyers in the dirt-poor sugar land province of Negros Occidental. Unlike some of his colleagues in the big cities, relatively protected and insulated from harm, Ramos stayed in the quiet town of Kabankalan.

He was a foot soldier lawyer on the front lines, always ready to fight another day in the courtroom, in the farms, in the streets, online and in conferences. There used to be a time when lawyers, most especially people’s lawyers, were protected by their profession and stature — using the law, evidence, arguments and even eloquence to fight. Not anymore. Today, the climate is one of intimidation, of fear, of hatred, of force, of killings.

Today, being a lawyer for the defenseless makes us a target. Who will then defend the defenders? And who will defend the defenseless?

And yet, Ramos’s sacrifice, together with those out there who continue to put their careers, comfort and even lives on the line, will live on in our pleadings, in our arguments in and out of the court, in our case conferences, in the courts, in fact-finding missions, in picket lines, in the streets and in the farms.

Photo: Filipino lawyers in New York react to the murder of Ben Ramos/NLG International