MANILA, Philippines?A human rights lawyer and campaign manager of the Liberal Party in Nueva Vizcaya province was shot dead by two men in front of a court house, a few steps from the police station, in Solano town on Tuesday morning.
Ernesto Salunat was boarding his white BMW car in front of the Municipal Trial Court building at 8:15 a.m. when the men gunned him down.
His murder came on the heels of the killings of three journalists shortly after the lifting of the election-related gun ban.
A total of 44 lawyers and judges, and 104 media workers have been killed in the country since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power in 2001.
A former northern Luzon governor of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), Salunat was among the few human rights lawyers practicing in Nueva Vizcaya. Among his clients were the poor and landless under threat of eviction and demolition of their houses.
In the run-up to the May 10 elections, Salunat served as the Liberal Party campaign manager in Nueva Vizcaya and was a staunch critic of the rival party, Abante Vizcaya.
Salunat was known to have made critical commentaries, over the Liberal Party?s paid radio program ?Arya Vizcaya? on dwRV, against alleged cases of graft in the provincial government.
He assailed local officials for the alleged misuse of more than P1 billion that the province had collected in real property taxes from the American firm California Energy Casecnan.
It was not the first attempt on Salunat?s life. In July 2008, he suffered a bullet wound in his left arm after he was shot while he and his younger brother, Quezon Mayor Aurelio Salunat, were playing mahjong inside a hut in Barangay Darubba in that town.
Hit in nape, shoulder
Police said two men on a motorcycle waited for Salunat at the court?s parking lot on Tuesday and held their post close to his BMW.
Salunat, who was hit in the nape and shoulder, was taken to Medical Mission Group Hospital in Solano but died at around 10 a.m.
?It appears that the assassins did not intend to leave any of the spent shells behind,? said Supt. Joselito Buenaobra, Solano police chief.
Police said they were trying to establish the possible motives in the attack and the identities of the assassins based on witnesses? accounts.
News of Salunat?s killing sparked expressions of shock, sympathy and condemnation among Solano residents, especially from Salunat?s colleagues and friends.
?This is an outrage, a sign of the very bad state of peace and order in our province. What can be more telling than that of a cold-blooded killing, with a human rights lawyer as victim, that takes place in front of a court house, just a few steps away from the police station?? said church worker Samuel Bumanlag.
Lawyer Rolando Taganas condemned the senseless killing of an advocate of law. ?There is no reason that will suffice for the taking of a life,? he said.
He said the killing should be a ?wake-up call for all concerned? to improve peace and order in the country.
Lawyer Dominica Dumangeng-Rosario, former IBP chapter president here, said the murder underscored the need for government to ensure the safety of lawyers and judges.
?We call [on] the Supreme Court or the local governments to provide [judges and lawyers] police security, especially during court hearings,? she said.
The spate of killings has shown that human rights should be a priority issue of the incoming administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said Tuesday.
Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima, who confirmed Tuesday she would be part of Aquino?s Cabinet, said it appeared that criminals were let loose from their cages with the lifting of the election gun ban.
?The extrajudicial killings are a stain on the current administration but criminality has also been on the rise after the gun ban was lifted,? De Lima told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
In a separate statement, Bayan said Aquino, who will take his oath as the country?s 15th president on June 30, should ?deal a decisive blow against impunity by going after outgoing President Macapagal-Arroyo, her cohorts, and other goons in uniform.?
The group said that aside from corruption, human rights would be the biggest issue that will confront the incoming Aquino administration.
?We hope President Aquino would act swiftly after his inauguration because the killings are taking place every week,? said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr.
The militant group described impunity and extrajudicial killings as the ?indelible legacy of the Arroyo regime.?
?The last few days of Arroyo?s reign have seen a rise in the number of extrajudicial killings, the frequency of which is reminiscent of 2006 and 2007. Killings are happening every week around the country. Three activists, three journalists and a human rights lawyer have been killed from May 19 up to the present,? Reyes said.
Bayan identified the activists as Edward Panganiban, 27, a union leader killed on June 2 in Laguna; Jim Galez, a Bayan Muna regional secretariat staff member who was shot dead on May 19 in Panabo City, Davao del Norte; and Benjamin Bayles, 42, a human rights worker slain in Negros on June 14.
Meeting with Aquino
De Lima said she and Aquino discussed the spate of killings at her meeting with him at his home on Times Street Tuesday.
Asked how the Aquino administration would pursue the cases of extrajudicial killings committed during the Arroyo administration, De Lima said: ?That will be discussed. There are no specifics yet.? With a report from Ben Moses Ebreo, Inquirer Northern Luzon