Philippine lawyers at risk in President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’

Yola Verbruggen, IBA Multimedia Journalist

When Gil Aquino, a human rights lawyer in the Philippines, goes to court, it is no longer safe for him to go alone or travel in his own car. While on the road, his office tells him to be extra vigilant of his surroundings. These conditions – akin to life in a conflict zone – are a daily reality for many human rights defenders in the country, since President Rodrigo Duterte called for the shooting of those ‘obstructing justice’.

The President has made threatening remarks to shoot human rights officials and kill judges and lawyers whom he perceives to be conspiring with drug offenders – part of the government’s ‘war on drugs’ that has seen thousands of alleged drug dealers and users killed in police operations.

‘Nobody is safe when the police are given the possibility to act with complete impunity and no accountability for its use of force,’ says Agnes Callamard, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Despite the pressure on him and his colleagues, Aquino, who works for human rights advocacy group Centerlaw, says he is determined to continue: ‘We are not going to stand for impunity. In a democratic system, human rights has to be the primary concern.’ He has not received any personal threats, though there was a curious text message offering discounted funeral services.

Aquino seems less concerned about the dangers he and his colleagues face. ‘We have means to take care of ourselves, our clients don’t,’ he says. The ‘war on drugs’ has been widely condemned as a ‘war on the poor’, as it targets predominantly poor communities.

President Duterte launched the drug policy following his inauguration as president in June 2016. The government stopped reporting deaths at the end of January 2017, when the toll reached 7,000.

The President has named individual judges, lawyers and others on a ‘narco-list’ whom he alleges have links to drug syndicates, although doubts have been cast over the validity of the list. He has also warned that the list will be extended to include lawyers of alleged drug dealers, and prosecutors whom he blames for causing the dismissal of cases against suspects.

An unlikely hero in the drug war is Efren Morillo, a fruit and vegetable seller from the poor neighbourhood of Payatas on the outskirts of the capital, Manila. He was shot and left for dead in a drug raid by police in August 2016. Supported by Centerlaw, Morillo brought a case against the police officer who he claims shot him.

Aquino, his lawyer, is confident about the merits of the case, but questions the chances of achieving justice. The Department of Justice falls under the control of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, who has said that ‘criminals are not humanity’.

Extrajudicial killings present the most dangerous opportunity for abuse of power. History will not be kind if we stand silent

Robert Bernstein 
Partner, Holland & Knight; Senior Vice Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

Residents of Payatas are among those targeted in police raids. Footage recently emerged of house-to-house drug testing in the area by police, first reported by non-profit media organisation Vera Files. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent office created under the country’s 1987 Constitution, released a statement condemning the tests as a ‘violation of the presumption of innocence’. In September 2017, those in support of the drug war retaliated when MPs allied with Duterte voted to cut the Commission’s budget from 749m pesos ($14m) to 1,000 pesos, or $19.

Vocal opponents of the drug war have been subject to a crackdown by the government. Senator Leila de Lima has been a critic of the President since she opened an inquiry into his involvement in extrajudicial killings when he was mayor of Davao City. De Lima, who is also a lawyer, was arrested in February 2017 on drug trafficking charges. Amnesty International calls the arrest ‘politically motivated’ and considers her a ‘prisoner of conscience’.

De Lima continues to oppose the President from prison. In a letter to Global Insight, she wrote: ‘As a prisoner of conscience, I refuse to be silenced. I will never stay silent about the brazen killings in our country that have claimed more than 12,000 lives (and counting), the brutal violation of our basic rights and human dignity, as well as the flagrant abuses and injustices of this government.’

Fhillip Sawali, de Lima’s Chief of Staff, added: ‘The Senator keeps on telling us that, despite the professionalism displayed by her police custodians, she can never feel 100 per cent safe.’ Meanwhile, the likelihood of justice for the families of those killed for their alleged involvement in the drug trade are dim. ‘In the absence of an investigation meeting international standards, the prospects for justice are non-existent,’ says Callamard. The government has dismissed the need for such investigations, saying the killings occurred during legitimate police operations.

There have also been calls for President Duterte to be tried in the Hague. In particular, Philippine lawyer Jude Sabio requested the International Criminal Court charge the President with mass murder and crimes against humanity. In response, Duterte threatened to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

Robert Bernstein, a partner at Holland & Knight and Senior Vice Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee, says ‘it behooves the international community of lawyers and judges to speak out’ about the killings. ‘Taking life requires the strictest scrutiny and, therefore, extrajudicial killings present the most dangerous opportunity for abuse of power. History will not be kind if we stand silent.’