By Carlos H. Conde
Researcher, Human Rights Watch
Another lawyer has been murdered in the Philippines, the 38th to have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. The media reported that unidentified gunmen shot dead Rex Jasper Lopoz, 41, as he was about to enter his car outside a shopping mall in Tagum City, in the southern Philippines, on Wednesday evening.
Lopoz’s family believes he was killed because he was representing defendants in drug cases, and that his murder was linked to the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs,” in which thousands have died. Lopoz was also known in the area as a leftist activist.
Lopoz’s murder has been widely condemned – the Integrated Bar of the Philippines said there have been so many deaths “we are almost losing count.” Like Lopoz, several of the victims were lawyers representing the accused in drug cases. Some, like Benjamin Ramos, who was shot dead in November in the central Philippines, represented victims of government human rights violations. Judges have also been targeted.
The government 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.
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.