“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” William Shakespeare famously said.
In the Philippines, it appears someone (many argue it is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte) took Shakespeare’s words to heart. From 2006 to 2019, between 43 and 61 lawyers and other court staff were murdered. Many others were attacked but survived the attempt on their lives.
The murders target a wide swath of lawyers, including human rights defenders, defense lawyers for police accused of atrocities, those who represent drug dealers and other criminals and opponents of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.
Since 30 June 2016, the Government of the Philippines has engaged in a continuing, gross, and systematic campaign of extrajudicial killing in violation of the Philippines’ international law obligations. Since President Rodrigo Duterte office on 30 June 2016, an estimated 27,000 persons, including children, have been extrajudicially killed with impunity, as part of a “war on drugs.” The Philippines’ official number is 6,600. Among the victims are 43 lawyers, prosecutors and judges (jurists) assassinated between August 2016 and May 2019 and numerous human rights defenders.
Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) claims 61 lawyers and court staff were murdered since Duterte came to power, topping the number of lawyers murdered by all previous regimes combined.
The situation is so dire that Philippines Department of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said lawyers and judges should arm themselves for protection.
“There is no prohibition on carrying firearms and our lawyers know that. Part of their job is to get exposed to dangers and they are not prohibited from carrying firearms. What we can do to help is to expedite the issuance of license to possess firearms and even permits to carry,” Guevarra said.
He also asked lawyers to immediately report any harassment or threats to their lives.
A week after Menardo Guevarra encouraged lawyers to arm themselves for self-protection, the Phillippine Supreme Court issued a public statement condemning the murders.
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.
The Supreme Court asks lower courts, law enforcement agencies, public interest groups and advocates to provide evidence of threats or killings prior to their deliberations scheduled for the last week of April. They also implemented additional security for any judge who feels threatened.
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.
Lastly, they encouraged all lawyers who were threatened or harassed or whose clients were threatened or harassed to ‘file the necessary motions’ so the Court could deal with those cases appropriately.
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.
Human Rights Watch Philippines researcher Carlos Conde said that the findings that most of killings are under Duterte’s term “demonstrates the unsettling extent of impunity in the Philippines.”
“[B]y targeting rights defenders, journalists and now lawyers, it is making sure that accountability and justice remain unattainable, that impunity will prevail. This needs to stop,” he said.
Will arming themselves save lives in a country where killing lawyers is almost a national pastime?
Perhaps, but since many of these killings are well-planned surprise attacks, that is a question only time will adequately answer.