On a late Wednesday evening in early March, Filipino human rights lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen headed home after a long day at his office in Iloilo, a city renowned for its well-preserved Spanish-era homes in the central Philippine island of Panay.
As he walked to his residence, two men wearing ski masks appeared and started attacking him.
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The assailants took his backpack, which contained his laptop and court case files, but left his wallet and smartphone untouched, according to the police report. They escaped with two other accomplices on separate motorbikes, and have never been found.
The 33-year-old lawyer was left slumped on the ground, fighting for his life. When rescuers found him, a yellow-handled screwdriver was still stuck in his left temple.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the country’s largest group of lawyers, denounced the attack as a “brazen and bloody assassination attempt”. Guillen only managed to escape death by playing dead.
Police in Iloilo said they are still investigating the attack, after initially saying the incident could have been motivated by robbery.
ALERT: National Union of People's Lawyers – Panay Secretary-General Angelo Karlo Guillen was stabbed ay the head and his back by an unknown assailant along Gen. Luna St., Iloilo City at 9:15 this evening, Panay Today reports. #StopTheKillings pic.twitter.com/xxRq7AdU82
— CEGP (@CEGPhils) March 3, 2021
At the time of the attack, Guillen was the legal counsel for at least two Indigenous Tumandok leaders, who were among a group accused of resisting arrest during a police raid last December. Nine people were killed in the operation – part of a nationwide “anti-insurgency” campaign that President Rodrigo Duterte launched following the collapse of peace talks between the government and communist rebels in 2017.
Three days before the attack on Guillen, the village chief of a Tumandok community in Panay was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. He was a key witness in Guillen’s case, and rights groups suspect the twin attacks may be related. The Tumandok community is fighting against a plan to construct a dam in their ancestral land.
In the five years since Duterte became president, dozens of people in the legal profession have been brutally attacked, often with deadly consequences. According to the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), 61 lawyers, prosecutors and judges have been killed during Duterte’s term – higher than all the recorded deadly attacks on lawyers in the last 50 years under six previous presidents. Most were killed while doing their job.
There have been no convictions so far in any of the deadly attacks recorded since 2016, and the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) is now calling on the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, to “undertake more aggressive and concrete measures” to help investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.
“Despite assurances from the government that the justice system in the Philippines is working, it’s clear that its very foundations are in peril,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, said in a statement, warning that the “deadly wave of killings and incitement of violence will only continue” if action is not taken to protect rights defenders.
Lawyers in the line of fire
Human rights lawyers like Guillen often find themselves in the line of fire, accused of being communist sympathisers because of their work defending land rights activists, environmentalists and farmers.
In 2018, Guillen’s name and photo were plastered all over Iloilo alongside other lawyers and legal workers and tagged as “Reds”. The label has given rise to the term “red-tagging”, the practice by government officials and security forces of calling anyone involved in left-wing activism “communist”. Although not new, rights advocates say the practice is being deployed with much more ferocity during Duterte’s term, targeting anyone who expresses dissent.
Last year, Guillen was among those arrested by police after he joined a protest to call for justice in the killing of a left-leaning political party leader in Panay. He also joined the challenge in the Supreme Court against the controversial anti-terror law that Duterte endorsed in 2020.
Among those who worked with Guillen in defending farmers in the Visayas region of the country was lawyer Benjamin Ramos, a fellow leader in the lawyers’ group, NUPL.
In October 2018, Ramos helped a group of sugarcane farmers in Panay’s neighbouring island of Negros, after nine of their colleagues were gunned down by unidentified men following a dispute over land ownership.
Less than three weeks after taking the case, Ramos also became a target. As he was smoking outside a shop in his hometown of Kabankalan, Negros, two men on a motorcycle struck, shooting him at least three times. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, leaving a wife and three children behind.
Weeks before his killing, Ramos had been receiving death threats, and his name was also included in a separate list of people accused of being communists.
‘How do you seek justice?’
Another list circulating in Negros included the name of lawyer Anthony Trinidad and three of his close relatives.
Trinidad’s father was a well-known activist and detainee during the time of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country for more than two decades until 1986. But none of the younger Trinidad siblings was involved in any anti-government activities, a family member, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, told Al Jazeera.
In July of 2019, Anthony Trinidad and his wife, Novie Marie, were driving home after a court hearing in their hometown of Guihulngan in Negros, when their vehicle was shot at multiple times by two gunmen on a motorcycle.
Novie Marie sustained injuries in the attack. Anthony was killed instantly by bullets to his neck and head.
Three days later, two of Anthony’s relatives – a former town mayor and his brother – were also killed after armed men stormed their house in a neighbouring Negros town. Previously, a female cousin, a mother of two young children, was also killed. Fearing for their lives, two of Anthony’s siblings quit their jobs as elected town officials after being included in the list.
“How do you seek justice at this time? It’s as if they have just become statistics. It’s very sad,” the surviving family member told Al Jazeera, noting the arbitrary nature of the list of supposed communists.
Also included in that list was Mary Rose Sancelan, Guihulngan’s community physician, who was killed with her husband last December.
Since January 2017, nearly 100 activists, farmers and rights defenders and have been killed on Negros alone. With its Spanish-era sugarcane plantations controlled by only a few politically-connected families, Negros has been a hotbed of land rights activism and protests for decades.
Human rights groups, including Karapatan, have likened Duterte’s “red-tagging” campaign against such activists to his so-called “war on drugs”, which has left thousands of people dead.
‘Assault on judiciary’
When Manila-based lawyer Kathy Panguban was admitted to the Philippine bar in June 2016, she immediately immersed herself in human rights work, including the investigation of the series of killings in Negros. That was when she started getting harassed online and in the courts.
“I was not spared from the attacks,” Panguban told Al Jazeera, recalling how her personal safety came under threat. Two people she worked with on the case were later shot dead – lawyer Benjamin Ramos in 2018, and Zara Alvarez, a human rights worker from the Karapatan group, in August 2020. The other member of the team was lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen.
— ICHRP (@ICHRPGlobal) October 20, 2020
For her role in investigating the Negros killings, Panguban was charged with kidnapping and illegal detention after helping a mother gain custody of her child, who witnessed the killing of the nine sugarcane farmers. The cases against her were later dismissed by the court.
Panguban, lead lawyer of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, said that there was an “insidious pattern” of human rights advocates and defenders being “red-tagged” and eventually physically attacked and assaulted under the Duterte administration.
With Duterte being so “vocal” in expressing his disdain for human rights, it sends “a chilling message” that anyone who demands that their rights be protected “is now considered an enemy of the state,” she added.
Aside from human rights lawyers, judges have also been targeted for their work.
In January, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr, a military commander and anti-communist spokesman, wrote on social media that “blood debts will be settled” against lawyers challenging the anti-terror law before the Supreme Court. Among those seeking to nullify the law are retired Supreme Court Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Morales.
On March 16, Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio, a judge in Metro Manila, was accused of being a communist sympathiser after she dismissed a government case against a detained journalist who works for a left-leaning alternative publication.
An oversized banner bearing the judge’s photo, her name and a hammer and sickle flag was displayed along EDSA, the busiest street in Metro Manila. She sought protection from the Supreme Court after the incident, citing danger to her life.
The police intelligence chief in the central city of Calbayog was also accused of targeting lawyers after he asked the local court office in mid-March for the names of lawyers defending individuals who are accused of being leftists. He has since been relieved of his position for “breach of policy”, and for compromising the relationship between the police and the judiciary.
‘Worth fighting for’
Recently, the Philippine Supreme Court, whose members have now mostly been appointed by Duterte, condemned the killings, and harassment of lawyers as “an assault on the judiciary”.
In a statement, the court said it would not “tolerate such acts that only perverse justice, defeat the rule of law, undermine the most basic of constitutional principles and speculate on the worth of human lives.”
Edre Olalia, president of NUPL, noted that the court’s statement “took some precious time to happen and at great cost”, but added that it was “comforting and reassuring”.
Justice Secretary Guevarra says that it is “difficult” to link the killings to President Duterte, who is himself a former government prosecutor.
“The President himself is a lawyer,” Guevarra said. “Do you think he will have a policy … that will put his fellow members of the legal profession in personal jeopardy or something to that effect? I don’t think so.”
But Duterte himself repeated in early March that he does not care about human rights, as he ordered security forces to “finish off” the five-decades long “communist insurgency” and “kill” communist rebels.
As for lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen, he has vowed to continue his work after he recovers from his injuries, adding “we can never let fear prevent us from fighting the battles that must be fought.”
Jose Edmund Guillen, the regional director of the Public Attorney’s Office, told Al Jazeera that his nephew “is out of the hospital now recuperating at a safe place.”