An alliance of Philippine lawyers announced Thursday, November 2, their intent to challenge Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte over his 16-month war on drugs that has resulted in thousands of deaths.
Mga Manananggol Laban sa Extrajudicial Killings (Manlaban), as the group is called, looks to bring together those of the legal profession in joining what they described as the “ever-growing voices of protest against rampant killings”.
“Thousands of victims who are poor and powerless have been targeted and brutally, nay mercilessly, executed by the state, its agents and proxies with blatant contempt and disregard of due process,” the group said in a statement on Thursday in Quezon City, Philippines.
“Extrajudicial killings have not worked before and will never work now,” added the group.
Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NAPL) and one of the people behind the alliance said at the launch, ”It is the duty of all lawyers to consistently, uncompromisingly uphold and defend human rights.”
“We believe that lawyers… the duty of lawyers is not to apologize, is not to deodorize, it is not to rationalize violations of rights and due process,” said Olalia.
“Human rights are for everyone,” said former Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña, also one of the group’s backers.
Police and the Duterte administration have repeatedly denied extrajudicial killing accusations, by saying killings were made in self-defense.
Among the most recent events strengthening the accusations against the administration were the August murders of Kian delos Santos, 17, and Carl Arnaiz, 19 by Caloocan police two days apart. Investigators said Delos Santos was kneeling when killed, and Arnaiz handcuffed.
While human rights groups, including Manlaban, hold the drug war-related death count at over 12,000, the Duterte administration has insisted that the count is over exaggerated, and holds the count close to 4,000 as of October 25, 2017.
Duterte’s new spokesman Harry Roque, a congressman and human rights lawyer who started his position in November of this year, welcomed the group’s launch but denied the accusations on behalf of the president.
“Unless we can come up with actual evidence that there are extra-legal killings, then we cannot overcome the presumption [of regularity in the discharge of one’s official duties and functions],” Roque told reporters.
“He will not tolerate murders. He will only tolerate killings when it is in line with duty and when the engagement is legal,” he added, referring to Duterte.
Roque, though new in position, has known Duterte for a while and recently indicated his qualification to represent Duterte at the International Criminal Court (ICC), as he is the only Philippine lawyer authorized to practice law at the ICC.
On his website, Roque expresses his belief in the government’s responsibility to investigate the rising number of drug-related killings, and states that he is against “any and all forms of unjustified violence, especially those committed by state forces”. He also maintains that he will “always support” Duterte and “wish him success as our chief executive”.
In criticizing the president’s approach to the drug problem which has often victimized those of poor communities, Manlaban argued that tackling the issue must include probing at the federal level.
“The effective solution to the drug problem in the Philippines is cleaning up government of officials, including the police and politicians, who protect drug syndicates, effective prosecution of all involved, especially big drug lords, to dry up the supply chain, and inclusive economic development to uplift the people from penury and thus stem the demand for antisocial vices like drugs,” said Manlaban.
Just last month, Duterte ordered the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to take over the anti-drug campaign that was previously handled by the Philippine National Police (PNP). This comes after his net satisfaction ratings dropped 18 points, the lowest he’s received during his term.
In addition to Olalia and La Viña, other high profile individuals behind Manlaban are: University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Pacifico Agabin; Attorney Minerva Ambrosio; Professor Victoria Avena; Attorney Roberto Eugenio Cadiz, Human Rights Commissioner; Attorney Neri Colmenares, NUPL chairperson; De La Salle University College of Law founding Dean Jose Manuel Diokno; Attorney Rachel Pastores, president of the Public Interest Law Center; Professor Roberto Rafael Pulido; former Senator Rene Saguisag; former congressman Attorney Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada III; Attorney Evalyn Ursua; and Honor Cleto Villacorta III.
Student groups backing the alliance are Association of Law Students in the Philippines (ALSP), Paralegal Volunteers Organization-UP Diliman, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers-UP Diliman Chapter, and UP Diliman College of Law Student Government.
In addition to holding forums and issuing statements to familiarize others on extrajudicial killings, Manlaban said they would use their legal skills “to provide concrete legal assistance to victims and help in putting a stop to extrajudicial killing and rampant human rights violations engulfing the country today.”
“We actually think that the legal aspects, legal strategies to stop EJKs have not yet been maximized, so that’s the very important contribution this group would like to make,” said La Viña.