Women lawyers under attack: Beleaguered Pinay people’s lawyers for justice and accountability

The following article was published in the March 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.

by Women and Children’s Committee of the National Union of People’s Lawyers of the Philippines (NUPL)

The “Dark Ages” finds a parallel with the first half of the Rodrigo Duterte government for lawyers and human rights defenders. Lawyers, who are breathing life into their oath as officers of the court and as defenders of truth and justice, have become targets of violence and other forms of human rights violations themselves. President Duterte, despite being a lawyer, has openly and publicly criticized his brothers and sisters in the legal profession who are prosecuting cases of human rights violations and defending drug-related offenders. Worse yet, lawyers who are representing and protecting the interests of human rights defenders, peasants, workers, indigenous peoples and those who belong to the marginalized sectors, have been indiscriminately demonized and tagged as “protectors of terrorists” by State agents. After being branded as such, they are either hauled  into the courts on brought up on fabricated criminal charges or are targeted at gunpoint.

NUPL at the crosshairs of the Duterte Administration 

Members of Philippine-based National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) have not been spared from the wrath of a government that seems to incite and tolerate violence against all its critics. For more than a decade, NUPL has criticized government laws and policies that trample on basic human rights, particularly that of the marginalized, and representing victims of rights violations before local courts and international tribunals and mechanisms. As a result, NUPL has been arbitrarily red-tagged by government officials as a front organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army (NPA), along with other non-government organizations which are likewise on the front lines of defending rights and seeking accountability. The vicious red-tagging has led to the killings and attempted killings of NUPL lawyers.

Human rights lawyer and NUPL founding member Benjamin Ramos Jr. was shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen in Negros Occidental in November 2018. Prior to his cold-blooded murder, Ramos was branded as an “NPA’s (New People’s Army) lawyer” in briefings conducted by the military before village leaders. His photo was included in a poster that identified personalities of the CPP-NPA-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in the province. These posters were circulated in the town of Moises Padilla. Ramos had  handled cases of sugar farmworkers, youth leaders and a number of political prisoners.

This devious act of “red-tagging,” without any competent, admissible and independent evidence, is being carried out by military and civilian officials of the Duterte government, through its National Task Force on Eliminating Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). These officials have traveled around the country and even overseas for this smear campaign against lawyers and human rights defenders, with a hefty amount of money from the national coffers used for their travels. Furthermore, this Task Force, in a conference briefing with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), publicly branded NUPL, its affiliate member Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), and the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) as “communist fronts” with no evidence except alleged “military intelligence.”[1]

In August 2017, anonymous graffiti accusing NUPL of being a “Legal Protector” of the NPA was displayed along a national highway in Nueva Vizcaya. In addition, NUPL lawyers in Nueva Vizcaya have been reportedly subjected to various forms of harassment.

Meanwhile, Mario Laude of the “No to Communist Terrorist Group Coalition” indiscriminately linked the NUPL to the chief peace negotiator of NDFP. Without providing any competent and credible evidence, Laude accused NUPL of being the “legal arm” of the NDFP. Laude also referred to the NDFP as a “Communist Terrorist Group.”[2]

NUPL and its officers were also falsely included in a “destabilization matrix” in February 2019. This matrix linked NUPL and its officers to a person who released videos accusing President Duterte and his family of having linkages with the illegal drug trade in the country. The matrix was released by Dante Ang, President Duterte’s special envoy for international public relations, in the newspaper Manila Times. The matrix was released with the authority of the President, according to his spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

Attacks against Filipina Peoples’ Lawyers

Photos of NUPL individual members, some of whom are its Filipina lawyers, have been publicly displayed in what appears to be a rogues’ gallery of government enemies.

In Cagayan Valley, NUPL founding member lawyer Catherine Dannug-Salucon was included in leaflets containing a list of alleged NPA members. These leaflets were distributed by the Philippine Army during an activity of the provincial government. An alleged high ranking NPA member purportedly identified Atty. Salucon to be an NPA lawyer. A military lawyer had been monitoring her during the trial of the alleged NPA member. In one hearing, a police officer had taken her photo. She confronted the policeman and asked him why he had taken her photograph. She was later reprimanded by a police official on radio for what she had done. This is not the first time Atty. Salucon has been tagged as a “Red lawyer” and has experienced state-sponsored harassment. In 2014, Atty. Salucon was subjected to surveillance by military and police personnel. A civilian asset of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Intelligence Section informed her that there was a standing order from the PNP Isabela to conduct a background investigation of her to see if indeed she was a “Red lawyer.” She was being tailed and was asked about her daily activities. What made it worse was that her paralegal was killed by unknown assailants after he advised her of the need to beef up her security measures to ensure her safety.

Meanwhile, photographs and names of women lawyers Crizelda Azarcon-Heredia and Geobelyn Lopez-Beraye from NUPL Panay chapter were posted on electric posts in Iloilo City, along with seven other lawyer members with the NUPL logo, labelling them “lawyers of terrorists” and members of the CPP-NPA-NDF. The posters came out after they held protest actions in commemoration of International Human Rights Day and after forging an alliance with other lawyers in Iloilo against human rights violations and continued attacks on the people.

Similarly, three women lawyers of NUPL and its affiliate UPLM namely, mother and daughters Beverly Musni, Czarina Musni and Beverly Ann Musni Yr., were also tagged as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines in Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao.  They were among 19 individuals and four organizations tagged as communists in the province. The Musni mother and daughters have been involved in handling and prosecuting human rights and public interest cases.

After being tagged as lawyers of rebels and terrorists, these officers of the court were either put in harm’s way or are dragged in to answer to fabricated criminal charges.

In September 2019, Lawyer Crizelda Azarcon-Heredia survived an ambush in Capiz City in Panay island. Unidentified men fired nine gunshots at Heredia, while onboard her private vehicle with her client and daughter. Atty. Heredia just had just come from a hearing when the incident occurred. They were lucky enough to survive this attempt on their lives, with bullets barely missing their car head rests. The frustrated ambush took place less than a year after her photos were circulated in Iloilo City labeling her as a CPP-NPA-NDFP lawyer.

Meanwhile, NUPL Women and Children’s Committee head Katherine Panguban was charged with non-bailable offenses of Kidnapping and Serious Illegal Detention. Atty. Panguban was accused of detaining her clients, the child survivor of the massacre of nine farmworkers in Sagay, Negros Occidental and his mother. The mother and the child sought sanctuary from the Sagay police, who were compelling them to relinquish the child’s custody. Sagay police insist that the child could identify the perpetrators responsible for the massacre, despite the child’s repeated assertions that he could not do so since the massacre was carried out in the middle of the night. The case was eventually dismissed, when the child and his mother denied the accusations against Atty. Panguban.

Recently in February 2020, law student and engineer Jennifer Aguhob, of UPLM and Karapatan-Western Mindanao, was arrested on trumped-up charges of murder. The warrant of arrest was issued on July 26, 2019 by Judge Victoriano Lacaya, Jr. of Regional Trial Court Branch 9 in Dipolog City. While studying law, Aguhob served as paralegal for the case of Bishop Carlo Morales of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), who was also arrested in May 2017 on fabricated criminal charges. NUPL, together with UPLM, represented Bishop Morales in the case. Aguhob is scheduled to take the Bar Examinations in November 2020 to become a full-fledged lawyer. Prior to her arrest, Aguhob was subjected to harassment and intimidation by members of the Philippine Army led by Major Alvin Arellano and Rex Madrid in 2017. The military had asked about her identity, activities and whereabouts since mid-year of 2017. Aguhob was also tagged by the military as the holder of bank accounts that were used to finance and support the activities and members of the Communist Party of the Philippines.[3]

Hampered Exercise of the Duties and Obligations of the Lawyer’s Oath

These attacks on lawyers have created a climate of fear and impunity. With literally no one having been held to account for these attacks, lawyers have been afraid to prosecute human rights violations and to handle the defense of alleged drug offenses. They fear that government forces will go after them for representing these cases before the courts. The situation has been aggravated by ineffective and diluted domestic legal remedies ranging from skewed investigation and improper gathering and preservation of evidence, to a protracted and complicated legal procedure. Even the legal recourse of the Writ of Amparo, which is supposed to protect anyone from violations of their rights to life, liberty and security, and had been utilized by NUPL to protect its ranks, has been dismissed by the Court of Appeals on pure technicalities. The case remains pending with the Supreme Court.

These attacks demonstrate that the Duterte administration has flouted the basic principle of international law that lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.”[4] State forces have blatantly disregarded the right of lawyers to ”take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights and to join or form local, national or international organizations and attend their meetings, without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization.”[5]

Not only did the Duterte administration violate the basic tenets of international law on the role of lawyers, these attacks, particularly against women lawyers, are also violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform of Action. These international instruments set forth the government’s obligation to ensure the full participation of women in public and civil affairs. In particular, Article 7 of CEDAW recognizes the equal right of women to participate in civil and political affairs of society.[6] This guarantee was bolstered by the Philippines’ adoption of the Beijing Platform of Action. It declared the States parties’ determination to “develop the fullest potential of girls and women of all ages, ensure their full and equal participation in building a better world for all and enhance their role in the development process.”[7]

Subjecting women lawyers to attacks that imperil their lives, limb and security has hampered their ability to fully discharge their duties as members of the legal profession. Their legal skills could have helped innocents and the wrongfully arrested regain their freedom and put behind bars those who are responsible for human rights violations. Despite the continuing attacks, Filipina peoples’ lawyers have remained committed to becoming instruments of truth, justice and accountability, which are fundamental components in the development and attainment of a just society. However, defenders like them must likewise be effectively protected from violence and rights violations, especially so they are able to fully discharge their functions in the public interest. #

The NUPL Women and Children’s Committee is part of the National Union of People’s Lawyers of the Philippines, a nationwide voluntary association of human rights lawyers in the Philippines, committed to the defense, protection, and promotion of human rights, especially of the poor and the oppressed.

[1] Lian Buan. (2019). “Amid crackdown, IBP agrees to ‘briefing’ by anti-communism body”. RAPPLER, Accessed at https://www.rappler.com/nation/245518-crackdown-ibp-agrees-briefing-anti-communism-body.

[2]Philippine News Agency. (2019) “Hold NDFP negotiator accountable for part in NPA crimes: group”. Accessed at https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1063066.

[3] “Free Engr. Jennifer Aguhob.” Statement of the Obispo Maximo Iglesia Filipina Independiente, February 6, 2020. Accessed from < https://antonioablon.com/2020/02/07/free-engr-jennifer-aguhob/> on February 23, 2020.

[4] Paragraph 18, United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. Accessed at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/RoleOfLawyers.aspx

[5] Paragraph 23, ibid.

[6] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Accessed at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CEDAW.aspx.

[7] Paragraphs 31 and 34 of the Beijing Platform of Action. Accessed at <https://www.un.org/en/events/pastevents/pdfs/Beijing_Declaration_and_Platform_for_Action.pdf>.