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Open season?

Alarming data consolidated from the Department of Justice, Supreme Court, the Free Legal Assistance Group, and the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers show that 61 lawyers have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took his oath of office in June 2016.

These 61 killings in a period of  than 5 years is a staggering increase compared to the total of 49 lawyers killed in a span of 44 years before the Duterte administration, covering Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law, which started in 1972,  and up to June 2016, when his immediate predecessor Benigno Aquino III’s term ended.

Despite the data, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said President Duterte should not be blamed for the disproportionately high number of killings under his term.

Guevarra, whose DOJ is under scrutiny for its own inaction in addressing the burgeoning problem under his watch, blamed circumstances, saying lawyering has always been a dangerous job, no matter who the president is.

“The president himself is a lawyer, do you think he will have a policy… that will put his fellow members in the legal profession in personal jeopardy or something to that effect? I don’t think so,” said Guevarra.

Perhaps he forgot that Duterte had already warned lawyers representing drug suspects as early as 2016, saying “Even them, I will include them.”

DOJ’s belated action in holding dialogues to address the problem was defended by Guevarra as “better late than never”, but given the alarming trend and record of the current administration, it may be another case of too little too late, especially for the families and loved ones of the 61 lawyers who have already been killed over the past 5 years.

To be fair to the Secretary of Justice, at least he has spoken on the issue. Supreme Court Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, retiring on March 27, is the country’s highest ranking lawyer who has been eerily silent on the issue.

With limited interest and action from national agencies, it won’t take long before Filipino lawyers think twice before upholding their oath to defend their clients to the best of their abilities in this country where killing lawyers has almost become as easy killing suspects. Is this by design, or are our government officials who should be making sure lawyers can perform their roles within the justice system somehow failing at their jobs?*

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