Death of a lawyer

Anyone who still harbors the illusion that the City of Smiles is somehow insulated from the bloody mayhem unleashed by Rodrigo Duterte should now be disabused after the murder of lawyer Rafael Atotubo by all too common “riding-in-tandem” killers.

The hit on Atotubo — that is exactly what it was, a well-planned, well-executed assassination — is the perfect demonstration of the culture of impunity that has long infested Philippine society but never as markedly as now, under a president who seems to revel in death.

The lawyer’s murder was so brazen, carried out just before high noon on a busy street in full view of multiple witnesses, as if the killers were proclaiming: “So what if you see us? We won’t be caught anyway.”

Could it could signal open season on Bacolod and Bacolodnons as Duterte’s “war on drugs” intensifies, just as he pledged in his third State of the Nation Address, “as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began”?

After the spike in killings in Iloilo and Cebu cities, is it then our turn?

It is hard to shake off this worry given the fact that, according to news reports quoting the authorities and people who knew him, he mostly handled drug cases, often as the defense lawyer.

It would be terribly wrong — not to mention utterly stupid — to ever think this could somehow justify the cruel fate visited upon him. This is the mindset that drives the war on drugs, a take-no-prisoners attitude that has little patience for the rules of evidence and basic human rights.

Think of what would happen if, say, lawyers stopped taking on clients to defend for fear they might come to harm or worse. As the Integrated Bar of the Philippines Negros Occidental chapter, denouncing Atotubo’s murder, correctly points out:

“Any attack against a lawyer weakens the practice of law and demoralizes lawyers from fulfilling their sworn duty to defend their clients. It threatens the independence of lawyers and judges, hindering their pursuit toward an effective administration of justice.”

Do I hear protestations of, “If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear?” That, of course, is an opinion that holds true only until you are wrongly accused, arrested, or worse. What recourse would you have without a lawyer to look after your interests and mount a legal defense for you?

Presumption of innocence is universally accepted to be an inviolable right. Section 14 of Article III, or the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, explicitly states:

(1) No person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law.

(2) In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved …

It is, alas, an all too common misconception that lawyers who defend crime suspects must be morally bankrupt or involved in the same shady business as their clients and thus, in the context of the war on drugs, would deserve the same fate as those Duterte deems less than human.

Of course, there is no denying there are lawyers who fit that description. One only has to look at those close to Duterte, who loves to stress that he once was a fiscal and, in the same breath, boast that he used to plant evidence and take other liberties with the law.

But so sacrosanct is presumption of innocence that the State is actually obliged to provide you with a lawyer if you cannot afford a lawyer of your choice.

Indeed, as the IBP-Negros Occidental points out: “Ultimately an attack against a lawyer is a threat against civil liberties and should not be tolerated.”

This is why we, residents of Bacolod City, should join Atotubo’s colleagues to condemn and demand justice for his death, for our rights and our very lives may be at stake.

But just as important, we should lay the ultimate accountability where it belongs, on a leader and government that have nothing but contempt for our basic rights and made murder official state policy.

The murder of lawyers — like the murders of drug suspects, of activists, of journalists, of priests, of indigenous people — is the inevitable offshoot of official disdain for rule of law and due process.

We can turn a blind eye on all these only at our own peril.