Rights defender, former senator, writer Rene Saguisag; 84

Rights defender, former senator, writer Rene Saguisag; 84

Former Senator Rene Saguisag dies

Former Senator Rene Saguisag SENATE PRIB PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — Rene Saguisag, the human rights lawyer who defended martial law victims and other enemies of the state before rising as a senator after the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, and one of the “Magnificent 12” who voted to remove American military bases from Philippine soil in 1991, has died.

He was 84.


The death of Saguisag was announced by his son Rebo on his Facebook account on Wednesday.


READ: Rene Saguisag championed better legal rights for the underdog – senators

In a statement shared by the younger Saguisag, the family said they took solace in the “enduring impact” of his legacy as a dedicated public servant, whose “tireless endeavors as a human rights advocate, senator and writer stand as a testament to his unwavering commitment to justice, truth and democracy.”

“For him, expertise in law was a means to serve the poor and disenfranchised, and he provided free legal aid to those in need,” the family said of Saguisag.

Saguisag was able to spend his final months with “relatives, friends and countless supporters,” according to the family. “He passed away knowing that he was much loved and respected.”

Saguisag was a widower, as his wife Dulce died in a 2007 road crash in Makati City, an accident which also left him impaired for a long time.

The couple had four children, including Rebo, the executive director of the University Athletics Association of the Philippines.


Flag at half mast

Tributes poured in from lawyers, lawmakers, opposition leaders, human rights watchdogs and labor advocates.

At the Senate, the Philippine flag was flown at half-staff on Wednesday in honor of the former senator.

“He may have just served one term in the Senate, but his entire life was devoted to pursuing justice and fairness for every Filipino, particularly through such initiatives as the Free Legal Assistance Group,” said Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, describing Saguisag as “a man of true honor, dignity and integrity.”

Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva said Saguisag was the “gold standard in the legal community who lived out his profession bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice, especially [for] the oppressed and the downtrodden.”

Friends with Nene, Jojo

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III recalled some of his memorable encounters with Saguisag, a friend and contemporary of his late father, former Sen. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr.

During the wake of the elder Pimentel, who died in October 2019, Saguisag sang “You Are My Sunshine,” the younger Pimentel said.

“He deeply touched us all. I remember him asking Tatay Nene to deliver a message in heaven for his beloved wife, Tita Dulce. Tito Rene, I am certain that Tita Dulce and Tatay Nene await your arrival in heaven, knowing that you kept your promise and fulfilled your duties with integrity,” he added.

Sen. Nancy Binay said Saguisag had also been a close friend of her father, former Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, since their days in the resistance against martial law.

“It was an honor to have known a true statesman and patriot whose dedication and deep compassion for our nation were unequaled,” she said.

Magnificent 12

Saguisag, according to Sen. Risa Hontiveros, will always be remembered as one of the Magnificent 12, “whose bold choice to terminate foreign military bases reshaped our history and affirmed our sovereignty.”

In a statement, the opposition Liberal Party said Saguisag was a proud member of the party who “elevated the standards for those in public service.”

Former Sen. Leila de Lima, also the party spokesperson, remembered Saguisag for standing in solidarity with her during her drug trial under the Duterte administration.

Labor advocate, rights champ

The Federation of Free Workers (FFW) expressed its sorrow at losing the “beloved and respected champion of human rights and an unwavering advocate of the labor community.”

“His departure marks the loss of a monumental figure in Philippine society and labor history, but his enduring legacy will continue to inspire generations,” FFW president Sonny Matula said.

Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) chair Chel Diokno, head of the human rights lawyers network founded during the Marcos dictatorship that included Saguisag as a member, said, “the country has lost a remarkable, kind and patriotic man” with Saguisag’s passing.

Another FLAG member, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te, said Saguisag’s death “leaves a void not easily or soon to be filled.”

“Thank you for your service to the country, sir, and for the many war stories you shared along the way,” Te said.

Department of Migrant Workers Officer in charge Hans Cacdac described Saguisag as someone who “fought like a lion and sacrificed like a lamb,” recalling the period when they both served as lawyers for an urban poor community in Quezon City in the 1990s.

“So long, fearless freedom fighter, legal eagle and Harvard alum. Thank you for your moral compass and selfless service to the nation,” former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan said.

Defending state enemies

Saguisag and fellow lawyers Joker Arroyo and Dodo Sarmiento defended the critics of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and other “enemies of the state,” among them Jose Maria Sison, Ninoy Aquino, Saturnino Domingo and others in a long list of martial law victims.

Along with Arroyo, who would also become a senator and Sarmiento, Saguisag was part of the storied Mabini Lawyers, which was founded during the darkest years of the dictatorship to uphold the rule of law against violations of civil liberties and human rights.

When Eggie Apostol and Betty Go-Belmonte put up the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 1985, Mabini lawyers provided them with legal assistance when Inquirer was tested by existential threats from a dying dictatorship.

Born in Mauban, Quezon, on Aug. 14, 1939, Saguisag possessed all the academic and work credentials that guaranteed fame and fortune, according to Arroyo, but “he will always be for the underdog; money is nothing to him.”

Saguisag finished his primary education at Makati Elementary School in 1951 and his secondary schooling at Rizal High School in 1955.

At San Beda College, he obtained both his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1959 with honors and his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1963, cum laude. He placed sixth in the 1963 bar exam.

In 1968, he acquired his master of laws degree at Harvard University under a full scholarship.

Leaving the academe

In his youth, Saguisag worked as a checker, laborer, construction site guard and messenger. As a legal practitioner, he started out as a student researcher, then an associate, and eventually a part-time member of the law firm Ledesma, Guytingco, Velasco, and Saguisag.

From 1961 to 1972, Saguisag taught law at San Beda, becoming an assistant dean of the law faculty in 1971. He left the academe to practice law and work as a human rights lawyer.

In 1986, Saguisag was appointed as the spokesperson of then President-elect Corazon Aquino. He also became a Cabinet member during her administration and served as her presidential legal counsel.

From 1987 to 1992, Saguisag served as a senator for one term. He chaired the Senate committee on ethics and privilege and the ad hoc committee on the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

‘Haligi ng Bantayog’

After his term in the Senate, Saguisag refused to seek another term and shunned appointments from successive presidents, including an offer of a seat in the Supreme Court.

In 2019, Saguisag contributed to one of the Inquirer’s special reports about the ill-gotten wealth cases lodged by the Presidential Commission on Good Government against the Marcoses.

One of his last public appearances was during this year’s observance of the Day of Valor on April 9.

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Saguisag was one of the 13 men and women who were honored by the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation as “Haligi ng Bantayog” for their contributions to the struggle for freedom during the Marcos dictatorship.—WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS, JEROME ANING AND RUSSEL LORETO

TAGS: Flag, Mabini, Rene Saguisag

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