Human rights lawyer, environmental defender gunned down in Mindanao

September 16, 2021

Another human rights lawyer and an environmental defender was gunned down in Surallah town in South Cotabato province on September 15. 

Lawyer Juan Macababbad, vice-chairperson of the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), was shot dead in front of his house by two unidentified assailants. 

UPLM said Macababbad was the 58th lawyer and the third member of the red-tagged National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NULP) killed under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Media reports, however, indicated that there were a total of 65 lawyers who have been killed since Duterte won the presidency.

Macababbad was the legal counsel to Indigenous People victims of carnage, which the military claimed as an armed encounter with the communist rebels, in Lake Sebu town in December 2018. 

In 2015, the slain lawyer was at the receiving end of a SLAPP suit after local mass movements barricaded the aerial spraying facilities of Sumifru’s Banana plantation, according to the group Kalikasan Peoples’ Network for the Environment (PNE). 

He was also a staunch anti-coal mining advocate who led the opposition against the coal mining application of D.M. Consunji Inc in the Daguma Mountain Range. 

Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE, called for an “immediate independent investigation” into the killing of Macababbad. 

He urged Congress to pass the ‘Environmental Defense Bill’ that aims to provide protection to land rights and environmental defenders against attacks. 

Lawyer Antonio Azarcon, chairperson of UPLM, said it is clear that the murder of Macababbad, who had been receiving death threats, “is connected to his vocation of lawyering for the people.”

“The culture of impunity pervades with the lack of serious investigation and prosecution over thousands of extrajudicial killings in the country,” said Azarcon, adding that the legal profession “is not spared.”

“Our colleagues have become main targets, especially those who resist tyranny and defend human rights,” he said.

In a statement, rights group Karapatan said attacks against people in the legal profession, who are committed and tireless human rights defenders, “should stop.”

“We call for accountability for those who are fostering this climate of impunity that has led to these killings and attacks against those who serve the poor and vulnerable communities,” the group said. 

A few days before the killing of Macababbad, international environmental watchdog Global Witness published a report that ranked the Philippines as Asia’s deadliest country for land rights and environmental defenders. 

The report titled “The Last Line of Defence” named the country as the third worst country in the world with 29 killings of environmental activists in the country in 2020.

A total of 227 land and environmental defenders were killed last year, the deadliest year on record. Colombia has the highest number of killings with 65 and Mexico with 30 deaths. 

The report said more than 50 percent of the lethal attacks against Filipino activists “were directly linked to defenders’ opposition to mining, logging, and dam projects.”

It said that during the President Rodrigo Duterte administration, “a dramatic increase in violence against defenders” has been recorded.

“From his election in 2016 until the end of 2020, 166 land and environment defenders have been killed – a shocking increase for a country which was already a dangerous place to stand up for the environment,” the report said. 

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