MANILA — Some groups opposed Tuesday the idea raised by President Rodrigo Duterte of passing a law to provide free legal assistance to cops and soldiers who may face work-related charges.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) said there is no need for such a law.
“In principle, everybody including our military and police are entitled to constitutional and even universal rights to due process which includes the right to counsel," NUPL President Edre Olalia said in a statement.
"But more fundamentally, such proposed free legal assistance to them will be totally unnecessary if only they perform their jobs properly, regularly and legally, consistent and in accordance with basic rights and freedoms of the people,” he added.
“In fact, with all these rights violations and abuses, it is the victims of security forces that most need free, competent and independent counsel."
Lawyer Chel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group said that while government officials in the performance of their functions are entitled to be represented by the Office of the Solicitor General, this does not apply when government officials are charged with corruption or killing, as these are not considered part of their functions.
“The question is, should we use public funds to give a lawyer to a government official or employee who is charged, for example, with committing a crime, especially if it’s a serious crime, because generally, no charges can be brought except if there is evidence, sufficient evidence to file a case?" he said.
“It’s a bit concerning but at the same time, we have yet to see what specific proposals will come out of that statement,” said Diokno.
During his final State of the Nation Address on Monday, Duterte said it is "high time" for the country "to pass a law that would provide free legal assistance to AFP and PNP officers, enlisted personnel to help them from charges arising from incidents related to the performance of official duty."
Speaking to ANC Rundown on Tuesday, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said the move may be in anticipation of possible charges to be filed against erring cops and soldiers.
“They’re already expecting that after the administration of Duterte or even now…they would have to face the music. By following such orders such as the kill, kill, kill, the arresting of opposition and anti-Duterte groups, I think they’re already expecting that there will be a large number of cases that will be filed against these authorities,” Gaite said.
More than 6,000 drug suspects have died in police drug operations according to official figures, although human rights groups are estimating the figure to go as high as more than 30,000.
Rights groups alliance Karapatan said it has recorded more than 400 rights defenders who have fallen victim to alleged extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration.
All of these allegedly took place while Duterte increased benefits and promised to protect his soldiers and cops.
“What Duterte has really done is to pamper the military and the police by raising their salaries. They double their salaries since the assumption of Duterte," Gaite said.
"They’ve given the AFP and PNP more perks and privileges. They ‘modernized’ the military and the police and yet, we cannot see them improving in defending our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. We cannot see them really going against criminal organizations, especially the drug syndicate,” the lawmaker said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said his department has a “standing directive” to the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) to provide legal assistance to police officers up to the senior police officer 4 (SPO4) level and other uniformed personnel who are sued while performing their official duties.
“The PAO has existing memorandum circulars to its public attorneys regarding this matter. Provision of free legal assistance is subject however to the PAO’s evaluation of the case, including a determination of conflict of interest, as when the adverse party has also sought legal assistance from the PAO,” he said.
Guevarra also mentioned that the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have special funds to support legal expenses of cops or soldiers who engage lawyers of their own choice.
“Maybe an increased budgetary allocation for this purpose will be enough, assuming existing funds are insufficient,” he said.
LEGAL ASSISTANCE VS LEGAL PROTECTION
But will providing legal assistance to cops or soldiers accused of wrongdoing run counter to the the thrust of the DOJ's drug war review and its AO 35 panel probing extrajudicial killings?
Guevarra made a distinction between legal assistance and legal protection.
“Legal assistance is not the same as legal protection. It is just providing law enforcement agents some means to defend themselves in court for acts done in relation to their official duties, such as fighting terrorists and criminals," the official said.
"Unless proven guilty, they are presumed innocent. Like everyone of us, they are also entitled to due process of law,” he added.
In an earlier interview, Guevarra told ABS-CBN News only a few relatives of drug war victims have come forward to file cases against the police partly out of fear from retribution.
But he stressed the need for them to come forward and cooperate with the DOJ’s probe to move the case forward.