Government News Analysis

Behind the mask

Extrajudicial Killings Manlaban sa EJK

Yesterday, a gang of lawyers held a press conference in Quezon City (photo). It was the launch party of Mga Manananggol Laban sa Extrajudicial Killings or Manlaban sa EJK – Fight Against EJKs. But it was more than that; it was the emergence of yet another high-profile alliance opposed to the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. These lawyers won’t be wasting any time with the principle, ‘the presumption of innocence’, they’ve already decided that the Duterte administration is guilty of unlawful killings. At its core then, this group is rabidly political.

There’ll be no Duterte supporters among them; they’re ideologically opposed to him. And so, any hope of producing a fair and honest assessment of the killings linked to Duterte’s War on Drugs that have taken place over the past year, is lost. In short, there’s nothing independent about Manlaban sa EJK, and consequently there’ll be nothing independent about its findings. Behind the thin mask of justice which it wears, its motivation is clearly partisan.

This, then, is not just a lost opportunity in getting to the bottom of the “unexplained deaths” which – prima facie – appear linked to anti-illegal drug operations carried out by Philippine security forces, it will muddy the waters even further as far as solving these crimes is concerned. This then is not a service to justice, it’s a manipulation of it for political gain.

The lawyers, then, are starting off with a ‘presumption of guilt’ – an approach that runs wholly contrary to any notion of legal enquiry – a throwback to the feudal Germanic courts of the Middle Ages. If flies in the face of the most sacred tenet of criminal justice – one that’s enshrined in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights (Article 11). One, furthermore, that’s universally regarded as the most judicial means of discovering the truth with the least element of doubt.

The point is, these lawyers are not interested in seeking truth through discovery; they’re already decided that President Duterte is responsible, in one form or another, for these deaths. In other words, they’re in the process of prosecuting him – whether that be in a court of law or through the court of public opinion which they seek to influence.

We wonder where this group was during the last administration – that of the Liberal Party’s Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino. In 2015, the last year of his term, 13,005 murders and 12,478 homicides took place – a total of 25,483 lives cut short. Wasn’t that something that required a closer look at? You would think so – that figure represents the civilian death toll in war-ravaged Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015. Didn’t that cause these lawyers even a modicum of concern? If it did, they kept deafeningly quiet about it.

Here’s what the group stated on Thursday: “Members of the legal profession and law students who value the sanctity of human rights and equitable rule of law, cannot stand idly by in the midst of these attacks on the right of life, liberty, dignity and security of the people”. And yet they managed to in 2015.

The fact is; Filipinos do need to know why their fellow citizens lose their lives through those violent acts; they want to believe the country they live in is civilised; that there’s rule of law; that justice is supreme; that citizens – whether members of the police force or the Philippine Bar Association – are held accountable for their actions.

What they don’t want, however, is the constant manipulation of laws and legal processes – and the institutions that implement all that – complicit in obfuscating the truth, protecting those with influence, and furthering political agendas. And our reading of Manlaban sa EJK is that its prime purpose is to undermine a democratically elected president where the end game is to drive him from power.

So who’s behind this group? Its leader is former Ateneo School of Government dean, Tony La Viña, who in August rode to the rescue of Aquino-appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, in an effort to scupper an impeachment complaint against her. Sereno has constantly used her position to thwart Duterte, and the Liberal Party will do everything it can to ensure she continues to preside over the Supreme Court.

At the launch La Viña said this: “This is not partisan in the sense that it is political. We are doing this to uphold human rights, not to use it as a political weapon”. Let’s see how non-political and non-partisan it actually is. You judge. Here are some of the other members.

Robert Eugenio Cadiz, former executive director of the Left-Liberal human-rights lawyers group, Libertas – a group closely associated with human-rights organisations volubly critical of Duterte. Including arch-critic Human Rights Watch.

Rene Saguisag, former senator and spokesman for President Corazon Aquino. In July, he went before the cameras to support Duterte’s loudest critic, Liberal Party Senator Leila De Lima, who was about to be arraigned on drugs charges. On that occasion, Saguisag told Duterte to “re-examine” the values he was taught at San Beda College of Law.

He also referred to the president’s drugs war as his “private population-reduction programme” and described Congress as Duterte’s “lackey” and “Yes man” for not convening a joint session to deliberate – and, for him, reject – Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao following the seizing of Marawi City by Islamic extremist groups.

Neri Colmenares, a former member of the House of Representatives for the Left-wing party list, Bayan Muna. On 24 July, just hours before Duterte was to deliver his State of the Nation Address, Colmenares led a burning-of-photos ‘ceremony’ in the public square of his home town, Bacolod City, the provincial capital of Negros Occidental. The photographs being burned were of Defence Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana; then Chief-of-Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Eduardo Año, and National Security Adviser, Hermones Esperon.

Chel Diokno, De La Salle University dean and chairman of the Free Legal Assistance Group. At the beginning of last month, Diokno accused Duterte of attempting to destroy the independence of the country’s institutions – a reference to the impeachment complaints filed against Sereno and fellow Aquino appointee, Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio-Morales.

He claimed Duterte was attempting to “intimidate these institutions … a despotic ploy to muzzle” investigations into the president’s alleged ill-gotten wealth – allegations made by No.1 Duterte attacker and senate ally of the Liberal Party, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.

Here’s what he told his countrymen in February concerning the anti-drugs campaign. “Fight the fear … It is exactly the same fear and violence that was employed with so much effectivity by the Marcos dictatorship. The only difference is the branding. The label before was fear of communists. The label now is the fear of drug addicts and drug pushers”.

Lorenzo ‘Erin’ Tañada III, human-rights lawyer, former deputy speaker for the House of Representative where he held a seat as a member of Aquino’s Liberal Party.

Significantly, Tañada, Saguisag, Colmenares and Diokno were among the convenors of the Movement Against Tyranny – an anti-Duterte coalition of civil-rights advocates and activists, as well as students, indigenous groups and Catholic clerics. This group was formed to demonstrate on 21 September – the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by former president Ferdinand Marcos. At that protest effigies of Duterte were burned.

Edre Olalia, president of the Left-activist National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, a group regularly critical of Duterte. He added his voice to the chorus, last December, when he called for 400 communist prisoners to be released from prison – a call in support of demands from the Marxist-Lenninist-Maoist New People’s Army (NPA). Failing to set them free, he argued, “raised doubts” about Duterte’s “sincerity” in his peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Philippines, a communist coalition of which the NPA is its paramilitary wing.

Any neutral observer would know that Duterte had gone way beyond the extra mile to accommodate the NDF in those negotiations. His release from prison of 18 NDF officials to allow them to participate in the peace talks in Oslo, Norway, is proof enough of that.

Comically, at the Manlaban sa EJK launch, Olalia explained that part of the group’s purpose is to enlighten fellow lawyers who in their view have lost their way. In other words, any lawyer who doesn’t share this group’s views is ignorant, unscholarly and ill-informed. But then that’s how the Liberal Left always argues.

Minerva ‘June’ Ambrosio head of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines National Center for Legal Aid. She’s been working closely with another major Duterte foe, Senator Risa Hontiveros of the Progressive Left Akbayan Citizen’s Action Party which – for voting and support purposes – is a Liberal Party affiliate.

Ambrosio is representing the child witnesses to the police killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in Caloocan City, Metro Manila, on 16 August. This case has managed to spectacularly galvanise the anti-Duterte movement and is seen by that movement as a formidable force with which to deflate national support for the War on Drugs and tarnish Duterte.

Evalyn Ursua. In September, she led a group to petition the Supreme Court to carry out robust investigations into the alleged EJKs. That petition claimed that Philippine National Police Chief, Ronald dela Rosa, and Justice Secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II – two of Duterte’s most loyal administrators – had failed in their duties to prevent the unnecessary loss of lives” and to investigate the killings.

Ernesto Maceda Jr., a lecturer in constitutional law and president of the Philippine Association of Law Schools, writes a regular column in the Duterte-critical Philippine Star. Rachel Pastores, president of the Public Interest Law Center and a consultant lawyer to the communist National Democratic Front who’s served as counsel in a number of cases concerning political prisoners.

There are more; but these are sufficient to illustrate the political credentials of this group and the group’s real purpose. In short, this has more in common with an inquisition than it does with a serious attempt to seek the truth. And it certainly has much more to do with serving political interests than it does with serving the interests of justice. At the very least, it’s hard to see how this group can be anything but prejudiced against Duterte and those involved in carrying out his anti-drugs campaign.

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