The National Union of People’s Lawyers (N.U.P.L.) in the Philippines has recorded over 50 killings of lawyers and judges they say are “prima facie related to their work,” (“prima facie” meaning based on the first impression, or assumed correct until disproven) according to a statement reported by ABS-CBN News.
On the evening of March 3rd, attorney Angelo Karlo “A.K.” Guillen was attacked by unidentified assailants wearing masks in Iloilo City near a hotel in Barangay Villa Anita. Police reported that Guillen, 32, was chased, “mauled,” and then stabbed in the head. As of 11:45 PM, Guillen was in stable condition at St. Paul’s Hospital. Filipino news outlet Rappler reports that in addition to the assault, the assailants stole Guillen’s backpack and sling bag before taking off.
Guillen is the assistant vice president for the Visayas for the N.U.P.L. and is well-known for taking on highly political cases. Currently, Guillen is co-counsel on one of the many challenges to the recent Anti-Terror bill recently put up by President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime. He is also representing the Tumandok Tribe, an Indigenous group in Capiz and Iloilo, after nine leaders were killed and 16 tribe members were arrested on December 30, 2020. N.U.P.L. told ABS-CBN that Guillen is also representing several activists and human rights defenders arrested during police raids in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental in 2019.
The stabbing comes just a few days after the murder of Barangay Captain Julie Catamin, village chief of Roosevelt in Capiz. Catamin was shot dead by unidentified assailants riding motorcycles, terrifyingly similar to many attacks on activists in the Philippines. He had recently accused law enforcement involved in the December 30th attacks of planting evidence on some of those arrested. Furthermore, according to the Inquirer, Catamin was supposed to be a key witness to the murders of the nine Indigenous leaders killed that day, the same case Attorney Guillen is counsel for. The Philippines House of Representatives has begun pushing for an investigation into the chief’s murder in the form of House Resolution No.1617, which requests that the house committee on human rights conduct a probe into the murder. The push has mostly been from members of the Makabayan bloc, a group of representatives from parties which have faced extensive red-tagging.
Guillen himself has faced red-tagging throughout his career. “Red-tagging” refers to the act of marking someone as a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People’s Army, essentially designating them as a terrorist. It has a long history of use under Duterte and has resulted in the vigilante-style killings or arrests of many activists, reporters, and human rights workers. Guillen was recently arrested after being red-tagged on May 1st of last year during a Labor Day rally. He is a strong critic of red-tagging and has spoken out against the danger it can lead to for civilians.
The red-tagging and subsequent violence faced by those fighting for human rights or simply criticizing the government in the Philippines is a result of Duterte’s regime’s inability to “stomach criticism and dissent,” according to Guillen in a 2018 post to the N.U.P.L. Panay’s Facebook page. Guillen describes dissent as “an essential ingredient of social progress; that criticism of government is essential – in fact crucial – for democracy to work,” arguing, “[A] citizenry active in public discourse and conscious of the strength of collective action is the most potent safeguard against the despotic tendencies of those in power.”
In a democratic system, the power should reside with the people. Their ability to criticize the government and express dissent is pivotal to a society’s success. The government’s actions under Duterte to quell dissent and punish those who criticize the government says much about the malicious intentions of those in power. Government officials and those in power ought to support and protect their constituents. Instead of continuing to foster violence and create more division through red-tagging, the Filipino government should instead address the problems dissenters are criticizing and work toward solutions. The safety and well-being of the people, not the individual’s political power, must be prioritized. An end to the red-tagging of dissenters and political opponents is overdue. Hopefully, Attorney Guillen will recover swiftly to continue his work in human rights and see an end to the red-tagging and violence which plague the Philippines.