Law schools fighting for justice in a dirty drugs war


Up to 9,000 people have been killed since Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte launched his war on drugs after he was elected in June 2016, according to Reuters. Many deaths occurred during legitimate anti-drugs operations.

But according to an Al Jazeera report in December, thousands have been killed by unknown gunmen, and human rights groups say a large number of victims have been the target of vigilantes, and many killings are carried out without due process of law and amount to summary executions.

Addressing this issue is fraught with challenges and risks. But Ray Paolo Santiago, a professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s Law School or ALS and the executive director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center or AHRC, is encouraging his students to stand up to injustices by government agencies and those claiming to act on their behalf, and law schools are adjusting their curricula to deal with legal processes when the authorities act with impunity and even threaten lawyers.

Last August, Santiago led discussions with some two dozen students in his international human rights law class and together with other ALS professors and AHRC lawyers, drew up a report on summary and extrajudicial killings, which was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September.

As the drugs-related death toll continued to climb, Santiago started to recruit student volunteers to work with the Ateneo Legal Services Center to provide free legal assistance to victims, their families, and anyone with questions about their rights. For almost six months, a core group of some 10 students have been providing legal counsel and helping people mistakenly implicated in drugs crimes to clear their names from local watch lists.

“We wanted to have a more pragmatic approach to teaching,” said Santiago. “We’re not just teaching theories. We want students to realise that you can put this into practice.”

Other universities have joined in. The University of the Philippines and Adamson University law schools have opened their doors to families seeking to file cases on behalf of loved ones unlawfully killed or people who believe their rights have been violated by authorities.

Some law schools without resources to provide free legal services, like Lyceum of the Philippines University’s College of Law, held seminars on how students can properly gather evidence and build cases.

Fearful families

Community witnesses are often able to identify the perpetrators and vouch for the victim’s innocence – enough evidence to build a case of merit. But despite thousands of deaths, few cases are filed due to fear of retribution among family and friends, which feeds the cycle of injustice.

“The refusal of the families to file cases is a major deterrent to the prosecution of the cases,” Anna Maria Abad, dean of Adamson University College of Law in Manila, wrote in an email. “The families are naturally fearful of their safety; they have intimated that the perpetrators may get back at them and physically harm or kill them as well.”

The AHRC, for instance, has received dozens of inquiries from grieving families and victims of warrantless drug searches, but no one wants to file a case, according to Santiago. He says the centre is actively working on only two cases in which the clients are willing to pursue charges.

Climate of impunity

The climate of impunity under which police and vigilantes appear to operate has forced some law professors to adjust their curricula.

Santiago says he can no longer teach his students only to follow the rules of procedure when counselling clients. In other words, mastering the limits of the law and human rights as defined by the Philippines’ Constitution is not enough.

“If someone knocks on the door without a search warrant, legally you can say no. But the reality is if you don’t let them in, that house will be marked. And by coincidence, a good number of those who do not cooperate have been killed,” Santiago said.

“This makes it very difficult for us to give legal advice. It’s not as simple as before when we could tell people they can insist on their rights,” he added.

Santiago now incorporates more group sessions with students in class to discuss how they should advise clients in different case scenarios. In effect, students have to think outside the box.

Students want to help victims

Extrajudicial killings are nothing new in the Philippines. They have resulted from gang-related violence in the many slum areas of Metro Manila and political rivalries in the countryside, where local politicians have vast powers over the judiciary and local law enforcement agencies. The difference now is the sheer magnitude of the killings.

Within the first few months of the drug war, the legal community – students, professors and practising attorneys – was shocked by the lack of due process, according to a veteran human rights lawyer with the Free Legal Assistance Group or FLAG.

“They questioned what’s the purpose of being a lawyer when there’s no rule of law? People are just being killed,” said Maria Diokno, secretary-general of FLAG. “My theory is young lawyers are questioning their worth and realising it’s now that they’re needed most.”

FLAG has trained more than 200 students, lawyers, church leaders, social workers and human rights advocates in documenting cases of summary killings. Many students, Diokno says, came there voluntarily because they’re enthusiastic about helping the victims.

This is all the more surprising considering the risks. A total of 86 lawyers have been murdered in the Philippines since 1999, including three in the past couple of years. Threats and intimidation are commonplace, yet many students remain invigorated by a sense of responsibility to seek justice.

Although law schools like Ateneo urge more students to get involved, it’s the more experienced lawyers who really know what’s at stake.

“Sometimes the clients will ask if our students can accompany them [to the police],” said Santiago. “But I fear for them because these are my students. My fears may be unfounded, but times are different.”