Philippines Supreme Court and Senate denounce attacks against jurists

On 23 and 24 March 2021, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada welcomed the statement of the Philippines Supreme Court and a Senate resolution denouncing the alarming number of  attacks and killings of jurists in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in July 2016.

On 23 March 2021, the Supreme Court asked the lower courts and related agencies to provide data by the end of April 2021 “on the number and context of each and every threat or killing of a lawyer or judge within the past 10 years,” after which Court will “decide on the next courses of action, including the amendment of the relevant rules, or if necessary, the creation of new ones.” A day later, 24 March 2021, the Senate adopted a resolution condemning the rampant killings and acts of violence against members of the legal profession and urging President Duterte to take the necessary steps to ensure their safety and protection.

A report by the news site Rappler on 15 March found that 61 lawyers have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016 compared with 49 lawyers killed under the previous six Presidents from 1972 to 2016. In only seven cases have investigations of murders of lawyers led to prosecutions.

Lawyers groups, including the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) in the Philippines, and numerous international lawyers organizations, including LRWC, have been raising the alarm for the past five years about the escalation of attacks and extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders. LRWC has made oral and written statements to the UN Human Rights Council.

The Philippines has to date failed to halt the killings or ensure adequate investigations leading to prosecutions. This is despite 5July 2019 Human Rights Council resolution urging the Philippines “to take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” In August 2020, LRWC was one of 62 organizations seeking Council resolution for an independent investigative mechanism for human rights violations in the Philippines. However, on 7 October, the Council instead adopted a weak consensus resolution for “technical cooperation and capacity building for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines.” LRWC plans to continue to advocate for strong national and international measures to end impunity for widespread, systemic extrajudicial killings of jurists and defenders.

The full statement of the Supreme Court is set out below.

The members of the Supreme Court acknowledge receipt of various letters and manifestations concerning threats to judges and killings of lawyers. Among these letters include the Manifestations filed by some of the lawyers and parties in the cases questioning the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act, the statement of concern of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the University of the Philippines College of Law, and the Free Legal Assistance Group.

The Judiciary is one of the three pillars of our republican democracy, which itself hangs on a careful balance between and among governmental powers. 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.

The Supreme Court is mindful that nothing prevents it from standing by all court officers, judges and lawyers alike, as it now does in no uncertain terms. This principle is not in debate, but has remained fixed on administering justice amid a history of shifting social and political tides. Every threat to a lawyer or a judge that prevents them from exercising their functions has very serious repercussions on the ideal 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.

We are all too aware that everything the Court stands for must bend its arc toward ensuring that all its officers can fairly and equitably dispense their duties within the legal system, unbridled by the constant fear that such exercise may exact the highest cost. In this light, 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. 

We acknowledge and share the legitimate concerns of the public, the profession, the Judiciary, as well as law enforcers and public servants in general. 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. This should never be countenanced, for it is only in the enjoyment of our inalienable and indivisible rights that our freedoms become meaningful.

In this regard, we are taking the following courses of action:

First, we have requested our lower courts, as well as the various law enforcement offices, to furnish us with relevant information to shed light on the number and context of each and every threat or killing of a lawyer or judge within the past 10 years. We also urge the public—including public interest organizations, lawyers and judges’ groups—to provide us with vetted information on any incident of such threat or killing. We ask that this be done within the remainder of this month and the whole month of April. We are designating the Court’s Public Information Office to receive and collate these data and provide us with a report prior to our deliberations en banc scheduled for the last week of April 2021.

Based on the information provided, the Court will then decide on the next courses of action, including the amendment of the relevant rules, or if necessary, the creation of new ones.

Second, while this is ongoing, the Court En Banc has resolved to work on, deliberate, and promulgate rules on the use of body cameras for the service of search and arrest warrants. This is without prejudice to the Court’s deliberations on whether we can cover with our rules of procedure the conduct of buy-bust operations in the enforcement of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act.

Third, we have ordered the Office of the Court Administrator to: (1) coordinate with the relevant law enforcement agencies to investigate the most recent incident of a judge being the subject of a tarpaulin linking her to organizations considered by law enforcers as communists and rebels; and (2) survey among trial court and Shari’a judges the extent of threats they have received within the last 10 years. The resulting report would be the basis of further action by the Court.

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.

Fourth, 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.

Fifth, in all these processes, we will endeavor to coordinate through existing mechanisms with all concerned groups, whether belonging to civil society or law enforcement.

We encourage lawyers who have experienced harassment, or whose clients have experienced threats or harassment, to file the necessary motions in pending cases, petitions, or complaints in order that our courts may receive the evidence, determine the facts, and, based on the issues framed, provide the relevant reliefs for each case. General invocations of policy will be better supported by experience with the system. In so doing, we can assess what revision or institutional change is necessary to effectively and efficiently further protect our basic rights.

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 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.

The Supreme Court calls upon the entire Judiciary and all members of the legal profession to remain strong, steadfast, and unwavering in the duties they swore an oath to fulfill. At no more fitting time than now should the Judiciary remain undaunted, with a clear vision of taking courage, enforcing the law, and upholding the supremacy of the Constitution.

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.




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