At least 61 lawyers, prosecutors and judges were killed in the last five years, prompting calls for the UN to help investigate.
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.
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.
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.