MANILA – (UPDATED) A team of international lawyers has found “severe human rights violations” in the Philippines against Filipino lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, based on their 3-day investigation in the country.
The team said at least 37 lawyers were killed in the exercise of their profession under President Rodrigo Duterte, a sharp increase compared to previous administrations and a number they have not seen in other countries they have visited.
The team includes lawyers from Belgium, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and the United States. They belong to international lawyers’ groups International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA) and Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation (DELF).
The team met with government officials, NGOs, the Commission on Human Rights, legal professionals, victims and families of victims in Metro Manila and Iloilo.
The group said it was the killing of human rights lawyer Ben Ramos that prompted them to come to the Philippines.
“We have visited other countries where there has been a high degree of criminalization of lawyers because of the execution of their duties and defense of people but we have not visited any country where there has been such a high degree of extrajudicial killings, harassment and surveillance of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, and also now we’re learning, paralegals as well whom we consider also to be part of the legal profession,” lawyer Suzanne Adely from the United States’ National Lawyers Guild said.
“That does not mean that we’ve looked into this matter in every country in the world but there are…the reason that we came here in the first place is there have been extensive reports about this,” she explained.
The 9-member team of lawyers alleged violence against lawyers were state-sanctioned.
“[T]here are patterns suggesting a connection between the killings and the actions of the PNP and AFP. There are recurrent elements sustaining such connection,” the preliminary findings of the team said.
Among the elements they cited:
-President Duterte’s public declarations targeting lawyers
-Lawyers were allegedly tagged, harassed and surveilled before being killed
-The killings usually involved masked, professional shooters on motorbikes who use .22 caliber guns with silencer
-There was a lack of sufficient investigation: no inventory of guns used, no documented files about the killings, refusal to hear and protect witnesses and reported harassment of witnesses allegedly by the police or the military
-Killings targeted lawyers handling political cases and drug cases.
The team also noted the prevalence of filing fabricated charges to pressure, harass, discredit and intimidate lawyers. They found that red-tagging of lawyers resulted in harassment, surveillance, loss of employment and eventually their deaths.
But the team stopped short of categorically stating if their findings are enough to merit an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into killings in the country.
Lawyer Hans Gaasbeek of the Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation (DELF) said it would take “many steps further” before the ICC will step in, although 2 of his colleagues have noted either an unwillingness or inability on the part of authorities to investigate killings of lawyers in the country.
The unwillingness or inability of a country to genuinely investigate or prosecute gross violations of the Rome Statute is a requirement before the ICC could step in and investigate the matter itself.
The Philippines withdrew from the ICC last year after ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced her office had started preliminary examination into the country’s war on drugs. The withdrawal took effect on Sunday.
The group clarified their investigation was not prompted by ICC’s examination but by their sense of fraternity with their fellow-lawyers worldwide.
The group had also sent previous delegations to the country in 1990, 2006 and 2009.
“We are legal professionals, we feel fraternity with other lawyers around the world… And we try to use the international arena to raise awareness about human rights violations against people in the legal profession not just in the Philippines but elsewhere,” Adely said.
“There’s (sic) no plans to submit the report to ICC right now. We’re not ruling it out but there’s no member of our delegation who’s involved in that process and if somebody who’s involved in that process is interested in reading our report, we will be happy to share with them,” she added.
Ramos was killed in Negros Occidental by unidentified assailants on board a motorcycle in November last year.
After the killing, the police described Ramos as a lawyer for suspected rebels and suspected drug users.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers claimed the killing was state-sponsored. No suspect has been identified so far.
“Duterte’s declarations and almost complete impunity of offenders give police, military and effectively anyone a license to harass and kill,” the group said.
The group recommended that the President himself and his administration “refrain from publicly attacking lawyers and instead publicly condemn all attacks against lawyers, prosecutors, and judges at all levels and in strong terms.”
It also urged the government to put an end to red-tagging and public disclosure of drug lists, as well as ensure the safety of lawyers and the independence of the judiciary.
In a statement, Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo dismissed the delegations’ initial findings.
“They cannot attribute the lawyers’ killing to PRRD and his administration. The killing could be personally motivated,” he said.
“What do they mean by their statement that the Administration should refrain from attacking lawyers? The Administration has not attacked any lawyer in any way and/or manner. Coming as it does from lawyers who should know better, blaming the Administration for the lawyers’ deaths is gross intellectually challenged,” he added.