Law society comments on ‘lack of accountability for the killing of lawyers in the Philippines’ after young female prosecutor shot to death

Accountability has been called into question as 61 lawyers have met an untimely death since the premiership of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines after the killing of Prosecutor Eleanor “Ning” Dela Peña on the afternoon of June 10.

The Law Society has expressed grave concern about the ‘culture of impunity’ after data revealed that 110 lawyers have been killed in the Philippines from 1972 to the present.

According to reports, Ms Dela Peña was driving home around 5:00 pm in Digos City, Davao del Sur, when a lone motorcycle-riding gunman shot her to death- the car windshield was hit with bullets believed to be from a .45 caliber pistol. The mother of four was the Assistant Provincial Prosecutor of Davao Occidental and the former President of IBP-Davao City.

Charges have been filed in just seven cases in the last 20 years where lawyers have been victims and high-profile attacks on legal professionals involved members of The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a group based in the country’s capital that represents leftist activists and those who have been subject to human rights violations. The Free Legal Assistance Group(FLAG) who tracks the killing of lawyers, along with the NUPL say the slayings are related to representatives of those who have suffered from drug-related incidents or human rights issues such as trafficking and sexual assault.

CNN reported that the Manila based group sought assistance from a UN special rapporteur into the spate of killings and attacks against members of the judiciary in the country, saying: “These attacks produce a chilling effect which affects the performance of their sworn duties to the courts, their clients, their colleagues and the society. Filipino lawyers, right now, fear that they might be the next victims of these attacks.”

“Several steps to address these attacks are perceived or proven to be mere tokens, much delayed, even ineffective or misdirected especially since the state forces themselves, or their agents and proxies, are reasonably suspected to be behind these attacks,” the NUPL commented.

In 2020 men wearing masks stabbed Angelo Karlo Guillen, the NUPL’s secretary-general, with a screwdriver on Panay Island. Guillen, who was critically injured, had handled several rights-related cases, including the slaughter of nine indigenous leaders by state police officers.

In 2018, gunmen shot and killed Benjamin Ramos in a central Philippine province that has seen an incline in violent attacks directed at left leaning rights defenders.

The Law Society of England and Wales has warned that the Filipino government is ‘obstructing justice and preventing lawyers from undertaking their duties freely’.

Law Society vice president, Richard Atkinson, said: “The number of lawyers that have been harassed, threatened and killed whilst the Filipino state stands by and does nothing is of grave concern. What is especially distressing is the lack of accountability for these attacks.

“In the last 16 years, at least 271 incidents of work-related attacks on Filipino lawyers and judges have been recorded, including 90 killings.

“Perpetrators of these attacks are not held accountable, as targeted lawyers are publicly designated as enemies of the state and face arbitrary charges of terrorism. We have found that this dangerous labelling of lawyers is the primary reason for the high rate of killings in the Philippines.

“By preventing lawyers from undertaking their duties freely, the Filipino government obstructs justice.

“We call on the government of the Philippines to abide by international norms and support the rule of law by respecting the role of lawyers in society. We also demand that perpetrators of violence against lawyers face consequences for their actions.

“Accountability is a critical requisite for justice. We will continue to monitor the treatment of lawyers in the Philippines and ensure that justice is served.”

The Law Society concluded a fact finding mission titled ‘Caravana Filipina’ between 4 and 13 June 2024. It included 12 delegates from eight legal organisations, which support lawyers at risk.

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