Romeo ‘Ka Romy’ Capulong called a rare gemBy Leila B. Salaverria, Niña Calleja
Philippine Daily Inquirer
He was the kind of lawyer activists would call when confronted in the streets by the police. To those who knew him, he was “a rare gem.”
Romeo Capulong, who died on Sunday at 77 after a lingering illness, could have taken the financially lucrative route of handling well-paying cases, they said. Instead, he chose to defend the political prisoners, the downtrodden, the poor.
“For human rights workers, there was no one like Ka Romy. He was a rare gem,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer Monday.
Capulong’s remains lie at the Church of the Risen Lord on the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City. He will be buried at Everest Hills Memorial Park in Susana Heights, Muntinlupa City, on Saturday after an 8 a.m. ecumenical service.
In devoting his practice mainly to helping the poor and the marginalized, Capulong—known as “Ka Romy”—played a key role in promoting public interest and helping Filipinos fight for their rights, according to his longtime friend, former Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo.
“He was an elected member of the Constitutional Convention, his name was prestigious, and he opted to pioneer free legal service and public interest lawyering, handling pro bono (for free) cases,” Ocampo said.
Capulong, the son of a farmer, was president of the Public Interest Law Center, which provides legal services to the poor, and headed the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).
He defended some of the 10,000 victims of human rights abuses during the martial law regime of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Among others, he handled the rebellion charges against six party-list lawmakers and the criminal charges against 72 Southern Tagalog activists.
Capulong was also the counsel for the victims of the Payatas garbage crash in 2000 that killed more than 200 people.
While he did take on high-paying cases now and then, most of his earnings from these were funneled to his public interest law practice, Ocampo said, adding Capulong inspired others to follow his lead.
“Many have been inspired by his example. The role of people’s lawyers is bigger now,” Ocampo said. This was a remarkable feat, especially since the practice does not pay as well and involved much paper work, he added.
“Even if they were overwhelmed with the paperwork, they did not give up since they could see Attorney Capulong also working hard,” Ocampo said.
He said Capulong’s integrity was also beyond question.
His advice: Fight back
There were times during the administrations of Marcos, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when human rights lawyers were becoming endangered but Capulong implored his colleagues to hold their ground.
“Romy advised lawyers not to hide, but to fight back, stand up high,” Ocampo said.
Capulong was also the chief legal counsel of the National Democratic Front’s negotiating panel in its peace talks with the Cory Aquino administration. Ocampo was the chief NDF negotiator in the talks.
“What really set him apart was his unshakable faith in the masses,” said the leftist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan).
“He used to always remind young activist-lawyers, and even experienced mass leaders, about the importance of listening to and organizing the aggrieved, the victims of human rights violations, to fight for themselves and help win their own legal and political battles,” Bayan said in a statement.
The lawyer to call
Capulong valued the people’s movement as a “secret weapon” or “equalizer” that could be used in a system favoring the rich and the powerful, it said.
Palabay said that since Capulong’s prime commitment was to human rights, almost all his clients were poor. “He knew that the cost of legal services is prohibitive so he aimed to make it accessible to the poor,” she said.
She said Capulong was always the lawyer to call when activists were in distress.
“One of my vivid memories was during 2005. We had this march from Morayta to Mendiola, a protest against the calibrated preemptive response policy of President Arroyo. Eight, including me, were arrested,” she said.
“He was among the first few people who arrived to help us. He was there to negotiate with the police. He was always there whenever there were threats against our simple right to conduct a protest,” Palabay said.
Humility of Ka Romy
What made Capulong a beloved lawyer was his humility in dealing with ordinary folks, she said. “For him, his clients, the victims, are his bosses.”
It was also for this reason, Palabay said, that Capulong never became rich.
The NUPL mourned the passing of its founding chair.
“He built an excellent example in both law and life for lawyers to follow,” the NUPL said. “He represented the common man, the underdog and those who chose to fight back against an oppressive and exploitative system.”
Capulong is survived by his life partner Sofia Culanay; former wife Adoracion Cajucom; children Alexander Romeo and Sony, Eduardo Romeo and Rebecca, and Roma Pia and Richard; and grandchildren Adam, Leslie Eden, Gabrielle, Renzo Romeo, Elijah, Isabelle, Sean Romeo and Sebastian.