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Rights fighters pass the Bar, stand firm on justice amid rising attacks

By: Kurt Dela Peña – Content Researcher Writer/INQUIRER.net /April 14, 2022

MANILA, Philippines—“Have courage and serve the people”.

Anya Remonte and Rea Guiloreza, law graduates of the University of the Philippines and Central Philippine University, said this as they looked back on one of the reasons they took the Bar examinations—“the Philippines needs lawyers”.

The Supreme Court (SC) released results of the 2020/2021 Bar examinations on Tuesday (April 12) and two of the 8,241 law graduates who passed the “Biggest Bar Ever” were Remonte and Guiloreza.

GRAPHIC: Ed Lustan

Remonte, who was also recognized by the SC for having a grade 85 to 90 percent, said she drew strength from brave people’s lawyers who were killed because of the work they do.

“As I read the growing list of names, I promised that we were going to continue what they started and fight back,” Remonte, who graduated last year, told INQUIRER.net.

Guiloreza, who lives in Iloilo, said she drew strength from Chad Booc, who was arrested last year and then killed, the Tumandok tribesmen who were shot dead by police, and lawyer AK Guillen who was stabbed last year.

READ: Lawyer for red-tagged tribal folk stabbed; laptop, documents taken

She told INQUIRER.net that the assaults—arrest of Booc, killing of the Tumandoks, and the attack on Guillen—were personal to her and these led her to take the exams in one go because “we are really needed.”

This was the reason that even with escalating attacks on lawyers, the two said they will never be silenced. Like what Remonte stressed, “let us not forget that the Lawyer’s Oath is not an empty sacrament”.

Attacks on lawyers

The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) said last year that from 1984 to 2021, 129 lawyers had been killed and most of the killings remained unsolved.

READ: Duterte admin has seen more lawyers killed than previous presidents – NUPL

  • 1984 to 1986 (Ferdinand Marcos): 4
  • 1986 to 1992 (Corazon Aquino): 4
  • 1992 to 1998 (Fidel Ramos): 0
  • 1998 to 2001 (Joseph Estrada): 1
  • 2001 to 2010 (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo): 45
  • 2010 to 2016 (Benigno Aquino III): 21
  • 2016 to 2021 (Rodrigo Duterte): 54

NUPL said that from 2011, there have been 176 work-related attacks on lawyers, including 73 killings—these were linked to the handling of human rights cases (5); drug cases (20), and other types of cases (56).

It said the highest was documented in 2019, with 39 prima facie profession or work-related attacks. A steady increase in the attacks has been observed since 2016. In 2018, 16 lawyers were killed.

The 54 killings since 2016, the NUPL said, were 74 percent of the work-related killings in the last decade and 42 percent since 1984. Out of the 73 killings “perpetrators” were identified in 21 cases, but there was only one conviction.

“Since he began his term, there have been an average of 11 killings per year or almost one per month. Most of these killings appear to be unresolved to date,” NUPL said, referring to President Rodrigo Duterte.

Lawyer Edre Olalia, president of NUPL, said that since 2016, three people’s lawyers had been killed—Benjamin Ramos of Negros Occidental, Rex Fernandez of Cebu City, and Juan Macabbad of South Cotabato.

READ: CHR laments killing of Cebu lawyer

He said two lawyers survived kill attempts—Guillen and a lawyer on Panay Island. “Some are charged with fabricated crimes while many are likewise red-tagged,” Olalia said.

READ: Lawyer killed in South Cotabato gun attack

Need for people’s lawyers

NUPL consists of 250 lawyers and 250 law students, but with escalating attacks on activists, Olalia said the need for people’s lawyers, or those who handle cases of abuse of human rights for free, has become more urgent.

He told INQUIRER.net that many of the cases of 700 political prisoners in the Philippines are handled by lawyers of NUPL. This, as NUPL lawyers also handle “socio-economic” cases.

Through the years, NUPL has handled high-profile cases of rights abuses, like the ones filed against retired general Jovito Palparan, who was convicted in 2018 for the disappearance of activists Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan.

NUPL is likewise the legal counsel for overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane Veloso who is on the death row in Indonesia after she was arrested in 2010 for bringing in two kilos of heroin.

Veloso had said she had no knowledge of the illegal drugs she was carrying, insisting that the bag with the drugs had been given to her by recruiters who had already been sentenced to life in 2020.

READ: It’s final: Mary Jane Veloso can testify vs her recruiters

NUPL likewise handled the case filed against the Bakwit 7, or individuals arrested on Feb. 15, 2021 at the University of San Carlos-Talamban campus for allegedly training lumad to become child rebels.

The Society of the Divine Word and the University of San Carlos had denied the accusation, saying the lumad children were in Cebu for education in a school for “bakwit,” or evacuees who fled counterinsurgency military operations in their communities.

‘You will never bring us down’

Remonte and Guiloreza, who were already with NUPL since college, said they were witness to how lawyers and activists are being harassed, but won’t back down.

NUPL said that since 2011, there had been 104 cases of attacks on lawyers—almost half of these, 50, were by vilification or red-tagging. These were the rest of the cases:

  • Threats, harassment, intimidation: 36
  • Surveillance: 19
  • Attempted killing, physical injury; strafing: 13
  • False charges: 12
  • Arbitrary Detention: 3
  • Abduction/Disappeared: 1

NUPL said 49 cases involved rights lawyers/public interest lawyers and that 30 were attributable to state agents–-14 of whom belonged to the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, a multi-agency body created by Duterte and given billions of pesos in funding.

Guiloreza said she herself had experienced harassment for the work she does: “I was red-tagged by a Facebook page because of my photo with Rep. Sarah Elago (Kabataan) and my work with NUPL.”

She also narrated how she and her companions were tailed by men on motorcycles when they were driving back home from paralegal work on Panay Island for the Tumandok tribesmen.

Remonte told INQUIRER.net, “We will never be silenced. As long as there is one lawyer who is willing to stand up and fight for truth and justice, you will never bring us down.”

“Let us stand for justice. Let us be brave and let us forge onto this journey of a thousand struggles. Whatever happens from this day forward, let us serve the people,” she said.

“Wherever I go from here, I know that I will be a lawyer who will uphold her oath and bring pride to the privilege of being in the legal profession,” said Remonte, who said that her experience of helping out in NUPL cases helped her prepare for the Bar exams.

‘Help us end all the lawfare’

As NUPL welcomed the 8,241 new lawyers, Olalia said, “Together, let us undo a lot of things that are wrong with our society, many of which are ironically enabled by some of our fellow lawyers.”

The 2020/2021 Bar exams had the second highest passing rate, 72.2 percent, since 8,241 of the 11,402 law graduates have passed. The highest was in 1954, 75.17 percent.

Out of those who passed, 70 were from NUPL while 14 law graduates were recognized for excellent performance (having a grade of more than 90 percent).

READ: LIST: Examinees with excellent, exemplary performance in 2020/21 Bar exam

Out of 8,241 who passed, 761 were recognized for exemplary performance, which indicates having a grade of 85 to 90 percent. Olalia said more than 10 are from NUPL.

RELATED STORY: SC, various groups join forces to address killings of lawyers

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