POSTSCRIPT / March 11, 2021 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Killing spree adding misery to pandemic

UNLEASHING state forces on a killing spree to stifle legitimate dissent only adds to the suffering of people already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Only a sick mind can think of inflicting such cruelty on the people.

In a bloody Sunday rampage, the police in Rizal, Batangas and Cavite shot dead nine workers who they said resisted arrest in pre-dawn raids. The killings came two days after President Duterte ordered state forces to gun down armed suspected rebels.

Part of the groundswell: The Supreme Court is being asked by lawyers’ organizations to hold back the killings by suspending the enforcement of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act while under review by the tribunal and to tighten the issuance of search and arrest warrants.

The United Nations in Geneva said Tuesday it was appalled by the apparent arbitrary killing of the eight men and one woman activist-workers in the Calabarzon area by security forces carrying dubious court warrants for suspected communist insurgents.

“We are appalled by the apparently arbitrary killing of nine activists,” Ravina Shamdasani, a UN agency spokeswoman said. “We are deeply worried that these latest killings indicate an escalation in violence, intimidation, harassment and ‘red-tagging’ of human rights defenders.”

“Red-tagging” is the practice of smearing targeted persons as communists or subversives, thereby laying the psychological basis for their harassment or their extrajudicial execution in situations made to appear as police raids or service of court warrants.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s 2020 report on the Philippines said there was in the country a serious lack of due process in police operations and near-total impunity for the use of lethal force by the police and the military.

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NOW even the lawyers who are handling human rights cases are being threatened, prompting their organizations to speak up as one and elevate to the Supreme Court what law professor Tony La Viña described as an “existential crisis”.

Human rights lawyer Evalyn Ursua, a UP Law assistant professor, said in a presscon hosted Tuesday by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines that lawyers should go on strike and demand that the government, particularly the Supreme Court, act on the deepening crisis.

In a statement during the presscon, the counsel of petitioners questioning the Anti-Terrorism Act before the SC called on all lawyers to “condemn the continuing attacks against lawyers and judges, including attacks against petitioners and their counsel in the ATA petitions… to launch a more active response to these attacks including complaints in the United Nations.”

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THE LAWYERS, who are officers of the court, said the first thing the Supreme Court can do is issue a Temporary Restraining Order against the Anti-Terrorism Act “pending the final adjudication of the 37 petitions” to help address the worsening situation.

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) said a TRO would “de-escalate the situation”. It added that the SC can ask the Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police about the status of investigations into the killings, and make the information public.

“The Supreme Court has the legal as well as the moral mandate and authority to protect its own officers from these threats, which have been brought to their attention through several motions. If the Court will not protect its own, no one will,” FLAG said.

The Supreme Court and the justice department have been holding dialogues with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines to address the killing of lawyers, but, according to Rappler, this started only in January 2021 when 55 lawyers had already been killed.

A day after the SC and the DOJ held meetings, the 56th lawyer was shot dead, it noted. “Data from the DOJ showed that of the 56 killings, only five cases have reached the courts, with the rest of the killings not having data in the prosecution docket,” it added.

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ANOTHER endangered species targeted are media practitioners. In the four years of the Duterte administration, thriving in a culture of violence and impunity, at least 19 journalists have been killed largely in relation to their media work.

Some 170 journalists have been killed in the country since 1986. Among the 58 victims in the 2009 Ampatuan massacre were at least 34 journalists covering the turbulent election campaign that year in Maguindanao.

In the previous Aquino administration (2010-2016), 30 journalists were murdered, while 80 others were assassinated during the nine-year Arroyo administration that began in 2001.

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THE LATEST on our list is Ronnie Villamor, 50, a freelancer who was shot by soldiers at around 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 14 last year in Milagros, Masbate, allegedly while fighting back, one of the common excuses of lawmen for shooting suspects or persons of interest.

The troopers said Villamor fled on a motorcycle, but that they caught up with him and shot him when he allegedly drew a pistol. His colleagues disputed the narrative of the police and the military.

The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines said Villamor was covering a land dispute in barangay Matanglad, but was blocked by soldiers. Parties in such disputes often ask for media coverage apparently believing journalists’ presence will prevent violence.

Villamor was the fourth journalist killed in Masbate after Joaquin Briones in March 2017, Antonio Castillo in June 2009, and Nelson Nedura in December 2003. He was the 19th killed since Duterte assumed office, and the 191st since 1986, according to the NUJP.

His death followed the murder of journalist Virgilio Maganes, who survived an assassination attempt in 2016 but was eventually shot dead outside his house in Pangasinan on Nov. 10.

Update of the earlier copy published in the Philippine STAR of March 11, 2021

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