MANILA, Philippines – Lawyers are respected figures in most societies because they are perceived to uphold the rule of law and ensure justice. In the Philippines, however, they are getting killed.
On September 14, lawyer Maria Saniata Liwliwa Gonzales Alzate was shot dead in broad daylight at around 4:55 pm. She was killed inside her car parked right in front of their house along Santiago street, Zone 2, in Bangued town.
A closed circuit television captured the killing. In the video, the two assailants were seen riding a motorcycle when they stopped in front of the window of Saniata’s car. One of the suspects then fired his gun. The police said the assailants fled towards Barangay Consiliman, in the same town.
In a conversation with Rappler, Abra Regional Trial Court judge Ralph Alzate, the slain lawyer’s husband, said he went to their farm on the day his wife was killed. At around afternoon when he arrived, he said he did not see their car and was told that his wife went out to pay their electric bill.
Not long after entering their house, Ralph saw his wife arriving with their car, but Saniata did not immediately enter their residence. Then gunshots followed – Ralph said he heard over five of them in succession.
Alarmed, Ralph immediately approached their car outside to check on his wife. He said they had to break their car’s window to get Saniata inside the vehicle. Seeing that his wife was shot, Ralph called for help from their neighbors.
They immediately brought Saniata to Dr. Petronilo V. Seares Sr. Memorial Hospital. Unfortunately, the lawyer did not survive and expired at around 5:05 pm.
Ralph said his wife did not receive any threats prior to her killing.
Tough lawyer, but a mother, too
Going beyond her sworn duties – this is how Ralph described his late wife.
As a public interest lawyer, Saniata assisted and helped countless indigent clients, including victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war. According to Ralph, his wife helped clients who were victims of illegal arrest at the height of Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.
Saniata did not only practice law in her home province, but also outside her home turf. In Abra, Saniata was known as the lawyer who would handle the cases that her pañeras and pañeros wouldn’t accept.
“Ang lagay rito, siya ‘yung salaan. ‘Yung mga ayaw ng ibang abogado na hawakan dahil sensitibo o may mabangga, ine-endorse sa kanya,” Ralph told Rappler. “And most of the time, abonado pa. Bibigyan niya pa ng pamasahe ‘yung mga kliyente.”
(Here, she acted like a sieve. The cases that other lawyers refused to handle – either because they were sensitive or they entailed going up against someone powerful – were endorsed to her instead. And most of the time, she shelled out her own money. She even gave some of her indigent clients transportation money.)
Among the most important legal victories Saniata secured was the issuance of a writ of amparo – a protective writ – for her client.
In February this year, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) – the national organization of Philippine lawyers – commended Saniata after a regional trial court issued the extraordinary writ that gave protection to her client, Excel Billedo. The client was allegedly abducted, detained, and tortured by police personnel in Bangued town.
“The IBP likewise recognizes the brave efforts of Atty. Liwliwa Alzate, Abra Chapter immediate Past President and former Legal Aid Committee chair. Her able representation of her clients have aided them in their quest for justice despite great risks to herself. It is a sterling example of lawyering for the public interest,” the IBP said in a statement early this year.
Truly, Saniata was known for her courage and commendable performance in the legal profession. She served as president of IBP Abra chapter for two terms, and as the organization’s former legal aid committee chairperson.
Saniata was recently appointed IBP Commissioner on Bar Discipline, tasked to investigate and look into disciplinary cases against lawyers filed before the IBP. Aside from this, the slain lawyer was also a staunch supporter of former vice president Leni Robredo, and was a convener and active member of 1Sambayan Abra chapter.
Saniata never knew what fear was in exercising her duty as a lawyer. “‘Yung asawa ko kasi, very strong-willed siya eh. Ako naman, sige lang. I keep reminding her. Very passionate siya eh. ‘Yan din ang nami-misinterpret ng iba, ‘yung pagiging passionate niya, akala nila rude.”
(My wife is very strong-willed. I was very supportive of her because she’s very passionate. Other people misinterpreted that – her being passionate, they thought was rude.)
Saniata obtained her law degree from Arellano University in Manila and was admitted to the Bar in 2002. She entered private practice in Metro Manila, working at the San Pedro Law Office in Mandaluyong in the early 2000s. She also worked as one of the counsels of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
She met her husband when he was working as a prosecutor at the time. When they got married, Saniata had to choose: stay in Manila or settle down in her home province of Abra. The lawyer chose the latter and lived in Bangued with her husband.
Saniata and Ralph were blessed with four sons. The eldest is in senior high school, while the youngest is in grade 6.
Ralph said his wife was a disciplinarian, but a kind and sensible mother to their children. In their free time, the family enjoyed cycling and tending to their farm – hobbies Saniata and Ralph passed on to their sons.
No escape from killing
Unfortunately, Saniata was not the first and last victim of killings that targeted lawyers.
The slain Abra lawyer is the third to be killed since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed office in June 2022. Prior to Saniata, there were two lawyers who were killed: Danny Pondevilla on December 20, 2022 and Elmer Mape on August 22, 2023.
Pondevilla was shot dead outside a foodcourt in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental in 2022. The lawyer, who served as general manager of Northern Negros Electric Cooperative, was killed while inside his car that was parked along 16th Lacson Street. A motorcycle-riding assailant fired at him, hitting the back of his head.
Mape, meanwhile, was killed while he was harvesting corn in his farm in Barangay Calbugos, in Villaba, Leyte. The police said the suspect, whom they claimed to be a former rebel, drew his gun and shot the lawyer twice.
Based on the available data, there have been 118 lawyers killed from 1972 to the present. The data is based on Rappler’s independent tally, along with data from the Supreme Court (SC), Department of Justice, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), and the Free Legal Assistance Group. The data spans eight presidents: from late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos up to his son, incumbent President Marcos Jr.
The highest number of lawyer killings recorded under a president was during the time of Rodrigo Duterte with 66. Duterte is also known for his bloody drug war, where around 30,000 people were killed, based the tally of human rights groups. (READ: LIST: Judges, prosecutors, lawyers killed under Duterte gov’t)
Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo comes after Duterte, with 22. The lowest number recorded was during the time of the late president Fidel V. Ramos: zero.
NUPL president Ephraim Cortez explained that threats against lawyers affect the performance of their duties.
“Killings of, or any threats, harassments, and intimidation of lawyers have a chilling effect on lawyers, which affects their independence and even their competence in representing their clients. This has an adverse effect on the right to due process because lawyers may now be intimidated and refuse to handle specific cases, or affects, in certain way, their independence and competence in providing legal services,” Cortez told Rappler.
Aside from instilling fear in people, the killings of lawyers also affect citizens’ access to the legal system because legal professionals act as a bridge between the two, according to NUPL Metro Manila Secretary General Kristina Conti.
“Killing lawyers silences an advocacy, and cuts this crucial connection from the community to the so-called ivory towers, the courts. Killing lawyers tells the general public that what you cannot win by reason, you can win by violence,” Conti said.
At the height of threats against lawyers in 2021, the SC issued a statement: “To threaten our judges and our lawyers is no less than an assault on the Judiciary. To assault the Judiciary is to shake the very bedrock on which the rule of law stands.”
This statement was an unprecedented move – given persistent threats against the legal profession at the time, there was mounting pressure from lawyers demanding action from the High Court.
The SC also mentioned in its statement the intent to review the protective writs for better protection of lawyers. The SC, however, did the review only after years of repeated appeals to revise and strengthen the writs.
On September 22, the High Court announced that it would finish its review by early next year, 2024. Meanwhile, the SC announced on Thursday, September 21, that it would meet with the IBP, local courts, and law enforcement groups to discuss better mechanisms to protect lawyers.
As of writing, authorities have yet to arrest the killers of the slain Abra lawyer. – Rappler.com