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Slain lawyers among most ardent peace advocates in Mindanao

By Leila Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 19:55:00 11/24/2009

Filed Under: Maguindanao Massacre, Politics, Inquirer Politics, Eleksyon 2010, Elections, Election Violence

MANILA, Philippines?One was a passionate grandmother who refused to abandon her advocacies despite death threats; the other was a young, artistic mother who quietly fought for her beliefs.

The two female lawyers who were slain in the massacre in Maguindanao were among the people who had helped keep the hope for peace and respect for human rights alive in Mindanao.

Concepcion ?Connie? Brizuela, 56, and Cynthia Oquendo, 35, were with members of the Mangudadatu clan, their followers, and more than a dozen media practitioners who were waylaid and murdered in Maguindanao by a group of armed men linked to the Mangudadatus' political rivals.

Their colleagues said the lawyers were probably helping the Mangudadatus to help with the filing of certificates of candidacy. Brizuela was also a classmate of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael ?Toto? Mangudadatu.

Brizuela, treasurer of the Union of People?s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), was known to her friends as a brave woman, such that her fellow lawyer, Beverly Musni, refuses to believe is gone unless her own family relays the news.

?She will fight, she will live. She's not someone who would give up easily,? Musni told the Inquirer. ?Her laughter is full of life. I refuse to believe she's gone.?

Musni said that without official word from Brizuela's family, she will consider her friend abducted.

Brizuela has three grown children and doted on her grandchildren. To her friends and colleagues, she was a ?wellspring of strength,? Musni added.

Brizuela had feisty personality within her petite frame and was no stranger to challenges. She was a former broadcaster who did not flinch in criticizing wrongdoers, and had been one of the leaders of a group fighting for good governance in Cotabato.

A few years ago, she was jailed for a few days because of a libel case filed by Emmanuel Piñol, who was then governor.

Brizuela, who is a Kidapawan native, came from a landed family but embraced human rights and public interest cases when she entered the law profession, according to Carlos Zarate, UPLM secretary general. She also handled cases against military officials, the police and civilian armed groups.

?This was when she impressed us. She chose to do public interest lawyering among women,? Zarate said.

He and Brizuela worked together in the group Lawyers for Peace, and they later founded the UPLM, the precursor of the National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL).

But while undeterred by threats, Brizuela also knew how to protect herself. When the menacing messages started coming in, she relocated to Bacolod, although she crossed to Mindanao to attend to her cases, said Zarate.

He found it hard to accept she was dead.

?Shock could not even describe it,? he said.

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, who worked with Brizuela in the NUPL, remembers his colleague as a passionate woman who actively participated in the fact-finding mission of the Dutch Lawyers for Lawyers group that probed the threats and harassment against lawyers and judges.

The group had produced a video report of their probe, and in it, Brizuela recalled her experiences and warned of the danger of attacking lawyers and justices.

?If they can kill lawyers, practically anybody. If they can kill judges, where cases are pending, then they can do that to ordinary people,? Brizuela said.

Oquendo was also a member of the UPLM and was not a person who embraced violence.

Her friend Violy Gloria, an Iligan-based journalist, recalled that Oquendo was involved in activism and health-related causes when they were at the Mindanao State Univeristy. Oquendo had taken up nursing there.

But Oquendo's brush with the militant life did not sit well with her mother, and she was later transferred to Cebu where she took up political science and became a lawyer, Gloria said.

As a lawyer, Oquendo went for ?alternative lawyering? and was active in social justice movements, Gloria added. She said that though she and Oquendo had not been meeting regularly, they had kept in touch through social networking sites. She learned that Oquendo had gotten married and had children.

In school, Oquendo was active in church and expressed herself through playing the piano, Gloria recalled. Oquendo did not keep an active social life back then and devoted her time to studying, activism and church, she added.

Oquendo was a quiet girl, but she was not weak. She stood fast for what she believed in, according to Gloria.

?As I know her, if she will be in a conflict situation, she would not be on the frontline. But her strength is that she will stand for what she believes is right,? she said.

Oquendo's Friendster profile listed some of her hobbies as defending, cross-examining lying witnesses, ukay-ukay, art classes and driving alone. She was also interested in mental telepathy and the unknown. Her profile picture was that of three young boys, presumably her sons.

Her Friendster page has also been filled with messages of love, gratitude and lament.

Copyright 2015 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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