On March 13 at about 7 pm, a 41-year-old defense lawyer and leftist activist named Rex Jasper Lopoz opened the passenger door of his car outside the City Mall in Tagum City in the country's deep south and started to climb in, to have a gunman riding tandem on a passing motorcycle fire a .22 caliber bullet into his back.
The bullet glanced off Lopoz’s spine and did massive damage to his liver. By the time rescuers could get him to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, he was already turning blue. Nothing could be done to save him, said his brother, Dexter, also a defense lawyer and who fears for his own life. His brother had received death threats in December and January over his defense of defendants in drug cases.
“I don’t want to speculate on why he was killed,” Dexter Lopoz said in a telephone interview. “But I really think, my gut feeling is it has a relation to the drug cases. He was the go-to guy for accused drug dealers and users. He was a popular guy among drug personalities, he was the one they hired.”
There is little doubt that the death squads that have terrorized the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte came into office in July 2016 killed Lopoz. And, while the long-running war on reporters has garnered most of the alarm in the Philippines, it is the war on lawyers that has been far more deadly, and frightening. Some 38 have died, all of them, like Lopoz, defending drug cases, while eight journalists have died during Duterte's malign reign.
"It is true that lawyers and other human rights defenders have been killed, but not all are 'drug war' related," said Chito Gascon, the chairman of the Philippines' Human Rights Commission. "There are many drivers of the killings and impunity has been entrenched long before Duterte became President. "
For instance, the Philippines has also been called the world’s most dangerous country for environmental lawyers and other defenders since Duterte came into office, by Global Witness, the international conservation watchdog.
So far the death squads, widely believed to be composed of police and their allies, have taken the lives of an official 6,000-plus poor drug users, although other figures go as high as 20,000 – and the lawyers who defend them. In late 2016, a third member of the Lopoz family, a cousin who was a prosecutor, was shot in broad daylight in Davao City.
“This strikes at the rule of law when you have a government and a president who scoffs at the niceties and who believes the constitution is just for him,” said a defense lawyer who declined to be named because he fears for his own life. “You get this, the killing of ordinary citizens, a string of murders of lawyers defending the poor, trying to defend the law. If you have a lot of drug cases, the authorities put you on a list and you are target.”
It isn’t the first time lawyers have been targeted. Lopoz died in Davao Del Norte, not far from where Duterte ruled as mayor prior to becoming president of the country, and where other lawyers were targets of death threats, intimidation and killings. It is where Duterte bragged about the death squads that had conducted as many as 1,000 summary executions of street children and drug dealers and others between 1998 and 2008.
Duterte infamously has since taken his campaign national, earning condemnation from human rights organizations and governments across the globe. On March 17, the Philippines announced it would officially quit the International Criminal Court, although the tribunal said it would still investigate crimes connected to the country’s bloody drug war. The withdrawal takes effect in a year.
The killings of the lawyers have been widely condemned, with Human Rights Watch issuing a statement that “The killing of lawyers who represent members of the poorest, most marginalized parts of Philippine society, including many of the victims of the ‘drug war’ and their families, has a devastating impact on access to justice in the Philippines. By silencing a lawyer, many victims are also silenced. But then perhaps that is the purpose.”
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines also condemned the killing, noting in a prepared statement that Lopoz’s death is the most recent in a quick succession of violent attacks against members of the bar.
“We are almost losing count, but there have been 38 such reported killings since Atty. Rogelio Baton Jr. was killed by unidentified gunmen in Tacloban, Leyte on Aug. 23, 2016,” the 40,000-member bar group was quoted as saying. “The series of unsolved crimes against lawyers has germinated a dark halo of fear that has paralyzed the most important pillars of the justice system. Murder and other forms of mindless violence have no place in civilized society. Lawyers are professionals who must not be associated with the perceived crimes of their clients.”
Some, like Benjamin Ramos, who was shot dead in November in the central Philippines, represented victims of government human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch. Former Cebu City Prosecutor Mary Ann Castro was killed in January and defense lawyer Alwyn Mendoza was kidnapped in Nueva Ecija, 180 km northeast of Manila in February and hasn’t been seen since. Judges have also been targeted, Human Rights Watch said.
The government, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a prepared release, “has subjected journalists, activists, priests, and religious leaders who have been critical of the “drug war” to a withering campaign of vilification and harassment, including through social media. Duterte has arbitrarily detained Leila de Lima, a senator who has been the president’s loudest critic, for more than two years on bogus drug charges.”