Lawyers, heroes

When we celebrate the 1986 People Power, I remember the contemporary heroes of our country. I have honored human rights icons Jose W. Diokno and Haydee Yorac. Three years ago, I also recognized a development worker and philanthropist, Lawrence Ong for his work with the Aetas. This year, I ask for the indulgence of my readers as I will praise a group to whom I have belonged for 27 years: human rights lawyers and environmental lawyers. They are my EDSA heroes for 2017.

I start with the lawyers from the Center for International Law (Centerlaw)  who filed the first case, a petition for a Writ of Amparo, challenging the tokhang practice of the Philippine National Police. After succeeding in getting the Supreme Court to issue a temporary protection order to protect complainants whose family members were killed by identified police personnel (there was one survivor, Efren Morillo who is the main complainant), a three panel division of Court of Appeals Justices went into action and 15 days after the case was filed, and on the same day it was heard, the panel issued a decision giving permanent protection to the complainants.

I salute all the lawyers in the Morillo case, including  the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal Justices who acted with urgency on this petition and the lawyers of the Offcie of the Solicitor General who did not oppose the issuance of order.  But most of all I salute the lawyers of Centerlaw, especially Tin Antonio and Gil Anthony Aquino, who led the team that handled this case. Atty Joel Butuyan is very clear that, while he was Centerlaw’s president, “complete credit goes to these young lawyers.”

Hopefully, the light is at the end of the tunnel and we can soon halt tokhang through directed legal actions. This week, for example, the Supreme Court issued another Writ of Amparo against policemen that were harassing the widow of a victim of an extrajudicial killing. I am confident that her lawyers, led by my colleague in UP and DLSU Law, Professor Chato Olivas, would also be able to obtain a permanent protection order for their client.

Unlike the lawyers of Centerlaw, Dean Chel Diokno and Attorneys  Arno Sanidad and Alex Padilla are not neophyte lawyers. They are veteran and prominent lawyers, the best in the Philippines bar, with a lot to lose when they take on politically difficult cases. But hesitate they did not when these members of the Free Legal Assistance Group, were asked to represent SPO3 Arturo Lascañas who claims that he was part of the Davao Death Squad (DDS) and has implicated President Rodrigo Duterte in hundreds of extrajudicial killings allegedly committed in Davao City when the latter was its mayor. I cannot vouch for Lascañas but I will definitely stand anytime and anywhere with Diokno, Sanidad, Padilla, and FLAG (I have been a member since 1990, joining it immediately after passing the bar). These are individuals you want with you in a fox hole during a battle: brilliant, exceptionally skillful, and completely trustworthy. I salute them for their courage in taking on this controversial client.

I salute also Senator Leila De Lima. She is not perfect and has made many mistakes, including inconsistency on human rights issues when she was Justice Secretary, but she is being persecuted because of her opposition to the administration. I salute her for her courage. She will surely be vindicated.

Finally, I reserve my last tribute and the most felt for Mia Mascariñas Green, the environmental lawyer who was assassinated in the island of Bohol a week ago.

I knew Mia when she was a young lawyer and a volunteer of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) which I serve as a board member. I have also met her in the late 1990s during trainings my team in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources conducted on appropriate dispute resolution of environmental cases I was already an Undersecretary at that time but I paid attention to young lawyers who had the potential to excel as environmental advocates and you could see that in Mia even in those days.

And Mia did not disappoint. She stayed in her beloved Bohol and served nature and people competently and passionately; in her province, she was described as “a woman who touched everyone’s lives”. According to Judge Raul Barbarona, also a colleague of ours in ELAC and who knew Mia since they were student-activists at the Divine Word College (now known as Holy Name University) in the 1980s: “She applied what she learned in college, the principles of active non-violence, authentic Christian humanism”.

Mia was ambushed by several gunmen while she was driving her Toyota Innova. The perpetrators  killed her in front  of her 10-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twins and the children’s nanny. Truly evil men, “they even bullied the kids and the yaya,” said Supt. Nicomedes Olaivar, Tagbilaran City police chief as quoted in a report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “They made faces and then laughed at them,” Olaivar also said,

The Alternative Law Groups, Inc. (ALG) and ELAC, describes Mia as “a dedicated environmental lawyer, an alternative lawyer in pursuit of public interest, respect for human rights, and promotion of social justice for more than ten years.” They condemned what happened to Mia: “No one deserves to  be killed especially as how Attorney Mia was cold-bloodedly gunned down.  Nobody should be killed most especially so because of one’s advocacy and beliefs . . . We  are, now, more than ever, encouraged and emboldened to advocate for what  is right, rather than being shakened by such cowardly acts against our peaceful community.”

The family of Mia, led by her husband Steve Green, himself an environmental advocate who has made our country his home, expressed the hope that Mia legacy “will forever inspire the community of people who fondly call and remember her as ‘Atty. Mia,’ the very fair lady who would always be on call at any time of day or night to help out with any situation. They promised that Mia’s children – Zoe, Eli and Zia – “will be raised to remember their mother as a very strong, principled and fair leader, and a great role model.”

For me, Mia’s death is one death too many, and we think if we want to make her death really meaningful, we want this to be the last death among alternative and environmental lawyers, the last death in fact among lawyers, indeed the last such kind of death in our sad and bloody land.

While there is a debate about the meaning of EDSA, its most enduring message has always been clear to me: there are moments in our lives, in the history of this country, that we are all called to be heroic, to stand up to be counted for great causes, no matter the risk and cost. And so for 2017, to celebrate 31 years of the people revolution, I recognize: Tin Antonio, Gil Anthony Aquino, Joel Butuyan, the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, CA Justices Apolinario Bruselas, Danton Bueser and Renato Francisco, Assistant Solicitor General Herman Cimafranca, Chato Olivas, Dean Chel Diokno, Arno Sanidad, Alex Padilla, and Leila De Lima – including all their colleagues who collaborate and work with them. And above all, I hail Mia Mascariñas Green: now that’s an honorable, heroic life.

Thank you compañeros and compañeras! You are all my heroes!


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