Lawyer for 9 slain farmers shot dead
Lawyers and human rights groups are crying out for justice over the killing of activist-lawyer Benjamin Ramos less than a month after helping families of nine farmers who were shot dead by unknown attackers in Negros Occidental province.
Ramos, 56, a founding member of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), had just bought cigarettes and was standing in front a store in his hometown of Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental, around 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, when one of two men on a motorcycle shot him three times.
“We decry this latest incident in a quick succession of violent attacks against lawyers, who are now enveloped in fear as they seek to provide access to justice to their clients,” said Abdiel Fajardo, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
Fajardo said lawyers, prosecutors and judges were “being targeted with surging frequency and impunity.”
“Each unsolved and unprosecuted murder of the officers of our courts of law is an attack against the rule of law,” he said.
In a statement, NUPL said 34 legal professionals had been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
Not counting judges and prosecutors, Ramos was the 24th lawyer killed and the eighth in the Visayas, it added.
“These beastly attacks by treacherous cowards cannot go on. Not a few of our members have been attacked and killed before while literally practicing their profession and advocacies in the courts, in rallies, in picket lines, in urban poor communities, and in fact-finding missions,” the NUPL said.
In a statement, former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said a government that did not act to stop the “rampant killing of defense lawyers … kills not only its citizens and their defenders, but also the rule of law.”
Such inaction “extinguishes hopes for a just and humane future,” Sereno said.
Pro bono lawyer
Ramos, the NUPL secretary general for Negros Occidental, gained the reputation of a “go-to” pro bono lawyer for farmers, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners and mass organizations in the province, NUPL said in a statement.
Lawyer Ian Sapayan, vice chair of NUPL in the Visayas and Ramos’ cocounsel in a case filed against six people who were tagged as communist rebels and arrested by soldiers in Mabinay town, Negros Oriental, believed Ramos was killed by state forces.
At a press conference in Cebu City on Wednesday, Sapayan alleged that the police in Negros Oriental distributed fliers that named Ramos and 60 other individuals as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines, opening the lawyer and the others to reprisals.
The Philippine National Police has denied the allegation.
Ramos left a wife and three children. His family declined to issue a statement.
Weeks before the attack, Ramos reportedly received death threats sent by text, according to human rights group Karapatan.
Malacañang and the PNP Western Visayas police director, Chief Supt. John Bulalacao, also condemned Ramos’ killing.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said authorities were conducting “a speedy and impartial investigation.”
“Pertinent agencies will do all they can to ensure that the perpetrators of this detestable atrocity are brought to justice,” Panelo said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he had ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to determine whether “there is any indication that the incident is related to the previous killings of the farmers” in Sagay City.
At a press conference in Quezon City on Wednesday, survivors of the Sagay massacre said they were being harassed by the police by blaming them for the killings.
“How come we who are the victims and survivors are the ones charged for the murders? We are now asking the help of the Commission on Human Rights because we no longer trust the PNP,” said Rene Manlangit, one of the survivors.
The nine victims, including three women and two minors, were farmers at Hacienda Nene who were engaged in the traditional “bungkalan”—planting vegetables and root crops to feed their families on idle sugar land.
At the same press conference, NUPL lawyer Katherine Panguban decried the kidnapping and serious illegal detention charges filed against her by the police after she assisted one of the survivors, a 14-year-old boy.
“The truth is, what we have found out is that it was the police and the local authorities of Sagay City who did not take extra care to protect the rights of the minor witness. They took him into custody and did a lot of interviews with him despite the absence of a counsel or his parent,” she said.
Flordeliza Cabahug, the boy’s mother, denied police allegations that her son was forcibly taken. She presented a document showing the proper turnover of the boy to social workers.
In a statement, the CHR said Ramos’ killing was “another addition to growing incidents … [of] the continuing violence against human rights defenders in the country.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Ramos’ killing was “a further indictment of the impunity that has worsened” under the Duterte administration.
—With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Ador Vincent S. Mayol, Morexette Marie Erram, Melvin Gascon, Jhesset O. Enano, Jaymee T. Gamil, Aie Balagtas See, Christine O. Avendaño, Benjie Talisic and Chrysee Gerona Samiliano
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