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Philippines: Surge in killings of lawyers and judges shows justice system "in deadly danger”

The Philippine government must urgently put an end to the surge in often-deadly threats against judges and lawyers, Amnesty International said today, echoing the concerns of the country’s own Supreme Court and Senate this week. 

“When the country’s own Supreme Court and Senate are seized of the death toll facing the legal profession, it should be clear to everyone that the situation is disastrous,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director.

President Duterte continues to incite killings and the climate of impunity across the Philippines is catastrophic, with lawyers and judges increasingly the targets. 

“The justice system as a whole is in deadly danger. The government’s executive branch, led by President Duterte, must take immediate steps to ensure that judges and lawyers are not attacked or threatened simply for doing their jobs”. 

President Duterte continues to incite killings and the climate of impunity across the Philippines is catastrophic, with lawyers and judges increasingly the targets.
Emerlynne Gil, Deputy Regional Director

A recent investigative report which included data from the Supreme Court, stated that at least 61 lawyers, judges and prosecutors have been killed under the Duterte administration since 2016. From 2004 to 2021, according to the report, only seven cases have resulted in charges filed in court. 

On 23 March, the Supreme Court of the Philippines issued a statement against these attacks and described them as an “assault on the judiciary”.  

The Supreme Court also pledged to take action, including issuing a call to lower courts and law enforcement officials for information on incidents of threats and killings over the past 10 years. On 24 March, the Senate adopted a resolution also condemning the brazen attacks against judges and lawyers. 

Legal organizations inside the country, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), are increasingly sounding the alarm at the attacks and killings of their colleagues.  

Some of those killed or threatened had been ‘red-tagged’ – labelled as “communists” or “terrorists” – as part of the Duterte administration’s widening counter-insurgency campaign, while others were representing clients facing drug-related or other unpopular charges. 

“Authorities are letting the chilling effect of ‘red-tagging’ fester across the legal profession. Instead, they must ensure the security of lawyers and the independence of the judiciary. Reports of threats and attacks on lawyers and judges should be promptly investigated with suspected perpetrators brought to justice,” said Emerlynne Gil. 

“Respect for human rights and the rule of law requires a strong judiciary and an empowered legal profession able to discharge their functions with independence and impartiality, and free from fear of reprisals of any kind.”

Most recently, the photo of a judge was hung on a tarpaulin sign along a major road in Mandaluyong City on 16 March, along with a message linking her to communist groups. This followed her ruling that journalist Lady Ann Salem and a trade unionist should be released after their arrest on trumped up charges. The journalist and unionist belonged to organizations that were previously ’red-tagged’. 

In the absence of domestic accountability for the threats, harassment and killings perpetrated against lawyers, and human rights defenders and activists in general, the international community – through the UN Human Rights Council – has the responsibility to hold the Philippine government to account for the violations, at least some of which amount to crimes against humanity, that continue to persist with blatant impunity and amidst empty assurances by Philippine officials of the government’s commitment to human rights. 

“Despite assurances from the government that the justice system in the Philippines is working, it’s clear that its very foundations are in peril. It is imperative that the international community take stronger action – measures to date are clearly not working. Otherwise the government’s deadly wave of killings and incitement of violence will only continue,” said Emerlynne Gil. 

Background 

On 12 March, Police Lieutenant Fernando Calabria Junior, intelligence unit chief of the Calbayog City police, wrote to the city’s regional trial court to ask for the names of lawyers who “represent CTG (Communist-Terrorist Group) personalities”. The request included a table that would detail the lawyers’ names, as well as their clients and the supposed “mode of neutralization”, widely believed to be the Philippine police’s standard euphemism for killing. The police leadership later disowned the letter, removed Calabria from his post and apologized for what they described as his “reckless behavior”.  

On 3 March, lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen was seriously injured when he was violently attacked in Iloilo City. Cases that Guillen handles included those against activists arrested during police raids in Bacolod City in 2019, as well as the Tumandok community members arrested in Panay in December 2020 during a raid that killed nine people. He is also a counsel of one the groups petitioning the Supreme Court to nullify the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers calls on governments to “ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” and that they shall not “suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics”. Also, the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary requires authorities to ensure the safety and protection of judges whenever they are threatened as a result of performing their duties. 

The UN Commission on Human Rights has called upon all governments to “respect and uphold the independence of judges and lawyers and, to that end, take effective legislative, law enforcement and other appropriate measures that will enable them to carry out their professional duties without harassment or intimidation of any kind.”