It was the most impressive delivery of justice Joel Butuyan had seen in his more than two decades of being a lawyer.

On January 26, human rights lawyers Gil Aquino and Cristina Antonio filed a petition before the Supreme Court of the Philippines seeking protection for Efren Morillo, the lone survivor of a police ambush that killed four alleged drug users in the name of President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs".

They're disillusioned with the justice system.

Jackie de Guia, Commission on Human Rights spokesperson

Only five days later, the petition was granted. It provided sweeping protections for Morillo and severely limited police activity near his home and workplace.

"It was a breath of fresh air considering the current atmosphere," said Butuyan, a veteran human rights lawyer who supervised the filing of the petition along with his colleague, Romel Bagares. "People have this feeling of hopelessness, but there's still a branch of government you can run to and seek protection."

It was the first legal action on behalf of a victim of the government's controversial anti-drugs campaign. Yet after more than 8,000 deaths, few cases have followed.

Rights groups said that many of the killings were assassinations of drugs users with police complicity, allegations the authorities have denied. 

Butuyan is the president of the Centre for International Law, the human rights advocacy wing of his private firm, Roque & Butuyan. Last November, he put Aquino, 27,  and Antonio, 37, a former community organiser, in charge of what has become one of the highest-profile cases in the country. They have four years of legal experience between them.

With such responsibility comes considerable risk. A total of 86 lawyers have been killed in the Philippines since 1999, according to Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. They also frequently face threats and intimidation. Lawyers are therefore sometimes deterred from pursuing politically charged cases.

Cristina Antonio accompanies Maria Belen Daa, mother of one of the victims of an alleged police buy-bust operation last August [Brennan Weiss/Al Jazeera]

Yet Aquino and Antonio vow to continue the quest for justice. Though human rights law is unattractive to many young Filipino lawyers because of the dangers and low pay, Aquino says he sees it as his chance to give back.

"I was given some of the best education this country can offer," the graduate of the prestigious University of the Philippines College of Law explained. "I should use it for good."

Persida Rueda Acosta, the nation's top public lawyer, said none of the families of those killed has sought legal assistance through the Public Attorney's Office, even though its services are free. Various law groups, NGOs and the independent Commission on Human Rights, however, are investigating hundreds of other cases with the intention to file.

"I'm very amazed why [the families] are not asking for our help if really they're a victim," Rueda Acosta told Al Jazeera. "If the people are really innocent, why should they be afraid to ask?"

'They felt helpless'

While poverty, a lack of awareness of their rights, and difficulty identifying the perpetrators are reasons why many victims and their families refuse to come forward, fear of retaliation is often the overriding factor.

Such was the case for Morillo and the families of the four men killed in the alleged buy-bust operation that took place about 20km north of Manila last August.

"In the beginning, they didn't want to file anything that would pin down the perpetrators," said Antonio. "They felt helpless. They could not imagine what they could do to make the perpetrators accountable."

READ MORE: Children and Duterte's drug war: Lessons from the past

Anna Maria Abad, dean of Adamson University College of Law in Manila, cited similar challenges. The university's Office of Legal Aid, which counsels the families of victims killed by unknown assailants during drug operations, has not filed any cases "because the families have adamantly refused to do so", Abad wrote in an email.

"They did not want to provide any statements to the police, nor accept the police invitation to interview them as the families have lost their trust in the police as a whole," she added.

With just one public attorney for every two courts in the country, a backlog of cases often delays rulings for years while the accused languish in prison. As a result, many Filipinos from the lower echelons of society - those most likely to be killed in the drug war - tend to be sceptical of the judicial process.

Judicial corruption

"There's such strong support for the drug campaign because people favour this kind of quick style of justice," said Jackie de Guia, a Commission on Human Rights spokeswoman. "They're disillusioned with the justice system."

Corruption in the judiciary through kickbacks and bribes also feeds the impression that the courts are rigged in favour of the rich and the powerful. The Philippines ranked 101st out of 176 countries in the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, according to Transparency International.

In December, Duterte took aim at lawyers who defend drug suspects, threatening to "include them" in his drugs war. More recently, he encouraged 19 police officers implicated in the death of alleged drug lord Rolando Espinosa, the mayor of a town in the Visayas region, to plead guilty so he can pardon them. The lawyer representing Espinosa's son, also an alleged drug dealer, was shot dead in August.

"I can't leave these officers behind. If they are convicted? No problem. They can call me and … I'll tell the judge to pardon them all," said Duterte.

The families of three men killed last year file murder charges against the perpetrators before the Office of the Ombudsman in Quezon City [Brennan Weiss/Al Jazeera]

Such pronouncements, along with the Duterte administration's refusal to thoroughly investigate the spate of killings across the country, have undermined many lawyers' faith in much of the government.

Morillo's lawyers, for example, filed murder charges against policemen before the Office of the Ombudsman so as to avoid filing with the Department of Justice, which is under the office of the president.

The lawyer for whistle-blower Edgar Matobato is avoiding Philippine courts altogether. Last year, Matobato testified during a Senate inquiry that Duterte was personally involved in extrajudicial killings while mayor of the southern city of Davao.

Jude Sabio, his lawyer, is expected to file a case this month before the International Criminal Court against Duterte for crimes against humanity based on Matobato's account.

"It is wishful thinking" for the government to investigate itself, Sabio said, explaining why he was planning to take his case to the international community.

Interactive - Philippines: Death toll in Duterte's war on drugs

Sabio's scepticism is rooted in the belief that Duterte is responsible for the surge in killings, or at least in creating an environment in which police and vigilantes can kill with impunity. It is a demoralising proposition for lawyers, but one that should not prevent their duty to seek justice, said Maria Socorro Diokno, secretary-general of the Free Legal Assistance Group.

"The point is there are courts. Once you start to question 'Do I have faith in this?', that's going to tie your hands," said Diokno. "You'll end up doing nothing."

That's what Aquino and Antonio fear, which is why they are encouraging more lawyers to get involved. Using the initial success of the Morillo case as a springboard, Antonio said that she hopes law groups will be more proactive by working together to eventually challenge the government's campaign on a national level. In the meantime, she promises to fight for the victims, despite the risks.

"When you're in a situation of danger, you're able to rally more because your senses are sharper," said Antonio. "Either you fold, you're paralysed or you find this calm inside you where everything is more vivid and you're more resolved to do things."

Victims of Duterte's war on drugs

Source: Al Jazeera