Human rights lawyer: Rehabilitate PH justice system to fight impunity

Posted on April 26, 2021

By Yvette Morales

Extrajudicial killings, corruption, and red tagging, among others, illustrate the culture of impunity in the country which can only be addressed by an overhaul of the Philippine justice system, human rights lawyer Jose Manuel "Chel" Diokno said.

"Generally, the climate of freedom that we used to know has been replaced by a climate of fear. The justice that we used to get from the courts now comes from the barrels of guns. And the justice system itself has been a victim of governmental neglect," Diokno said during the April 26 webinar hosted by the US Filipinos for Good Governance and International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov).

Diokno, who is also the chairperson of Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and the founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law, defined impunity as the "opposite of accountability."

"It is where we have gross and glaring human rights violations without [the] government doing anything about it, where victims are unable or afraid to go to court without justice. When essentially, you have no real remedies available if you are one of those unfortunate victims of these violations," he said.

Unfortunately, this impunity has been exacerbated by the lockdown imposed by the government.

"We all know it [the Philippines] has been the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. It employed, and continues to employ, a highly militaristic approach, rather than a scientific, evidence-based approach towards what is essentially a public health problem," Diokno said.

Diokno cited former Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Debold Sinas' claim during a press briefing in December, saying 598,000 Filipinos were warned, given tickets, or arrested for quarantine violations.

"We monitored some of those arrested and we found that there were cases when the poor had to languish in jail for, or up to more than 30 days because they could not afford bail, they have no access to any kind of legal assistance, and for a simple violation like not having a quarantine pass or violating curfew, they were punished severely by this system," the FLAG lawyer said.

"Some of them in fact were put in dog cages, some were made to exercise for prolonged periods which resulted in the reported deaths of at least two Filipinos," Diokno added.

In April, Darren Manaog Penaredondo died after allegedly being forced to do 300 rounds of pumping exercise after he violated quarantine restrictions.

In the same month, Secretary of Justice Menardo Guevarra said quarantine violators should just do community service instead of being detained or fined.

"Sana noon pa niya nabanggit yon para hindi na nahirapan yung ating mga kapatid," Diokno said.

Aside from arrests, the right to free speech was also restrained during this pandemic.

"There were at least two netizens who were visited by the police in their homes, taken by the police without warrant, [and] charged with inciting to sedition simply because they posted their innermost feelings and expressions about the way the government was managing this pandemic. Fortunately we were able to help both cases, but nonetheless, the chilling effect on everybody online is very palpable," Diokno said.

In addition to these, "community pantry" organizers are being red-tagged by the military and other government officials. Community pantries are initiatives by concerned citizens to help other people by giving necessities, such as food, for free.

"It's really so sad that those who are simply trying to help are now the subject of red tagging. Red tagging in the Philippines is no joke, if you're red tagged, your life could really be in danger," Diokno said.

But even before the pandemic, impunity has been palpable. Aside from deaths due to Duterte's war on drugs, Diokno said a number of legal practitioners and human rights defenders were killed during this administration. According to FLAG, 61 lawyers and judges have been killed since 2016. Meanwhile, the CHR said 89 human rights defenders were killed during this administration, Diokno said.

Institutions intended to safeguard democracy, such as the press and government agencies like the Commission and Human Rights and Commission on Audit, are also under attack, the lawyer added.

Even the judiciary, an equal branch of the executive and the legislative, was not spared.

"I'm sure you have heard about the removal of [Chief Justice Maria Lourdes] Sereno, not by impeachment as provided by the Constitution, but rather by means of an unprecedented quo warranto proceeding, as well as the [penchant] of our president for using the term 'narcolist' which have included the names of judges, and that has a chilling effect on our judiciary," Diokno said.

Moving forward

Diokno said there is a need to revamp the system to address these issues.

"The justice system is key if we want to hold people accountable, it is key in terms of fighting corruption, putting [the corrupt] in jail. It is the key in terms of addressing organized crime. Without a working justice system, we will never, ever be able to address these problems," he said.

Diokno said among the issues which need to be tackled are the low conviction rate, high vacancy rates of judges and prosecutors, and to raise the confidence of the people in the justice system.

"We have very little confidence in the justice system, which is probably why there has been support for the killings on the war on drugs because some people say, well at least they got punished. If we put them in the justice system, they might get away," Diokno said.

The clogged dockets of the court is also a problem.

"We have so many cases that are incoming but because of the lack of judges and prosecutors, [there is] a big inability to address those cases and that has resulted in huge delays in litigation," Diokno said.

Another issue is the process of appointment of judges and justices, as Diokno claims it has "become so highly politicized."

"If you know the right people, you have a better chance of getting appointed. That should change. We really need to restore the independence of the judiciary," he said.

Diokno explained that the present system provided in the Constitution needs to be refined.

"Everything lands on the President's desk. We know the President is supposed to be busy doing so many things that he or she will not really be able to attend to those many appointments. One proposal is to devolve at least some of that appointing power to other members of the Executive. For example, for the prosecutors, at least for the first level, that power could be with the Secretary of Justice rather than the President," he said.

The overhaul will not be easy, Diokno said, since those in power do not even talk about the weaknesses and the problems in our legal system. This is also dependent on what will happen in the upcoming national elections in May 2022.

"We need leaders who will be able to address the real problems that our country is facing... We must be able to begin addressing [the problems in the justice system] as soon as possible because that is one thing that our people have been looking for and waiting for so long, and I really cannot abide that my children that young people in our country will live in a country where justice is so elusive for the ordinary person, and only is reserved for those who are in power," he said. ?