MANILA — In a rare move, the Supreme Court on Tuesday condemned threats against and killings of lawyers and judges in the country, as it faced mounting criticism over the growing number of incidents.
Saying it could not stand idly by amid violations of constitutional rights, the high court announced several steps to address concerns raised by different lawyers and human rights groups.
“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,” said a joint statement by high court magistrates read by SC spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka.
"The Supreme Court has always operated within institutional restraints. But it is far from resigned to spectate as clear breaches of constitutional rights are carried out beyond its halls. We remain conscious of our role to ensure that the rule of law is resilient and effective in a just, fair and timely manner," the court said.
The statement was in response to various letters the high court has received from petitioners and lawyers against the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the University of the Philippines College of Law and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) calling attention to 61 lawyers killed under the Duterte administration and a recent red-tagging of a judge in a tarpaulin hung along EDSA.
“Every threat to a lawyer or a judge that prevents them from exercising their functions has very serious repercussions on the idea that the rule of law must be accessible in an impartial and transparent manner to all parties. Every right guaranteed in the Constitution must be protected,” the statement said.
“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,” it added.
The Supreme Court announced it was taking the following steps:
- Request lower courts and law enforcement agencies to furnish relevant information to shed light on the number and context of threats or killings of lawyers/judges within the past 10 years, with the public encouraged to report similar information to the SC Public Information Office within March and April this year
- Work on rules on law enforcers' use of body cameras for the service of search and arrest warrants
- Coordinate with concerned groups in civil society and law enforcement, and encourage lawyers or their clients who have experienced threats of harassments to file the necessary motions or complaints
Hosaka also told reporters that the high court already designated its Public Information Office to "receive and collate" the data that will be provided by members of sectoral groups and the legal profession.
"We ask that this be done on the remainder of this month and the whole month of April... based on [the] information provided, the court will then decide for the next courses of action including amendment of the relevant tools, or if necessary, the creation of new ones," he said.
The data will also be used for a report prior to its en banc session scheduled on the last week of April, Hosaka said.
The Supreme Court also ordered Court Administrator Midas Marquez to look into the red tagging of Mandaluyong City Regional Trial Court Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio, whose face was plastered on a tarpaulin along EDSA, linking her to the Communist Party of the Philippines, New Peoples’ Army and the National Democratic Front, which authorities have considered to be communists and rebels.
This followed her dismissal of cases filed against journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago, who she ordered released earlier this month after finding invalid police's search and seizure operation that led to their arrest.
Marquez was also directed to conduct a survey among trial courts and Shari’a judges about the extent of the threats they have received in the past 10 years.
“We have coordinated with all concerned to provide security and counseling to the judges concerned. The Court is ready to provide or coordinate security arrangements for any judge or justice that is similarly threatened,” the statement said.
A key measure the Supreme Court announced is to treat letters sent to the high court as a form of complaint, which the proper judicial authority can look into.
“We are referring all letters that contain specific incidents to the relevant trial courts, which will then order the parties to convert such letters into the proper remedies, such as but not limited to petitions for the writs of amparo or habeas data,” it said.
Former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te said this step may be considered significant in light of recent events where the writs of amparo and habeas data “have not been shown to be very effective.”
“The Court’s endorsement might be read as an indication that it wants to strengthen the writs pending any other initiatives to amend or come up with new rules,” he said.
SUPREME COURT STANDS WITH LAWYERS, JUDGES
In its statement, the Supreme Court assured lawyers and judges of its continued support.
“The Bench and the Bar, as well as the public, can rest assured that we will continue to unflinchingly comply with our constitutional duty to act decisively when it is clear that injustices are done,” it said.
“True to the just virtues we all must fight for, our resolve is unqualified. We recognize 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,” it added.
Not since ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s claim of a “wellness leave” in 2018 has SC justices spoken unanimously in a public statement.
But pressure has been growing from various groups calling for the Supreme Court to act not just on lawyers’ killings and threats against judges but also on calls to probe the issuance and service of “weaponized” search warrants on activists, which led to 9 activists killed in Batangas, Cavite and Rizal on Bloody Sunday.
The Supreme Court acknowledged these concerns.
"We are aware that there are wayward elements who, in their zeal to do what they think is necessary, would simply brush aside the limitations in our law as mere obstacles," the statement pointed out.
"This should never be countenanced for it is only in the enjoyment of our inalienable and indivisible rights that our freedoms become meaningful," it added.
Various groups welcomed the Supreme Court’s statement, which came on the very last en banc session attended by retiring Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta. He steps down on Saturday.
“The SC statement is an acknowledgment of the worsening human rights situation in the country today,” said Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr., who cited the case of their lawyer in the Anti-Terror law petition before the Supreme Court.
Lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen was stabbed with a screw driver on the cheek by still unidentified men in Iloilo City early this year.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) President Edre Olalia called the statement “comforting and reassuring to the legal community” while rights groups alliance KARAPATAN considered it an “important declaration.”
All pledged to participate in the Supreme Court’s efforts to gather more information.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, for his part, hoped for “more decisive actions and reforms…that will put in check, even stop, this state of impunity that is reigning in our country now, as well as to uphold and protect the rights of our people.”
“Now more than ever we need a Supreme Court that would be a protector of our people under attack and a bastion of democracy in our country,” he said.
Te, the former SC spokesperson, described the statement as a “good start.”
“Good, clear, strong statement from the Court with a definite and short timeline for compliance,” he said on Twitter.
Nearly half or 26 of the recorded killings among lawyers were work-related, 15 were drug-related, 12 were allegedly due to personal motives, and the remaining 15 are unknown, a FLAG report found.
They were either defense lawyers who handled drug cases or those involved in human rights and public interest lawyering, said the NUPL.
The NUPL earlier urged Diego García-Sayán, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, to look into the attacks after the incident involving Guillen.
In 2018, Duterte said García-Sayán "can go to hell" for allegedly "meddling" in the affairs of the Philippines.