Legal assistance for cops, soldiers: due process or preparation to face music?

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On July 26, 2021, police personnel stand in the way of protesters along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City, when President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his final State of the Nation address at the Batasan Pambansa complex. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – Some groups on Tuesday opposed the idea raised by President Rodrigo Duterte to pass a law to provide free legal assistance to cops and soldiers who may face work-related charges.

The National Union of People’s Advocates (NUPL) said such a law was not necessary.

“In principle, everyone, including our military and police, has the right to constitutional and even universal due process rights which include the right to a lawyer,” NUPL President Edre Olalia said in a statement. communicated.

“But more fundamentally, such free legal assistance offered to them will be totally useless if only they perform their work correctly, regularly and legally, in a consistent manner and in accordance with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people,” he added.

“In fact, with all these rights violations and abuses, it is the victims of the security forces who are most in need of free, competent and independent counsel. “

Lawyer Chel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group said that while government officials in the performance of their duties have the right to be represented by the Office of the Solicitor General, this does not apply when government officials are accused of corruption or murder, as these are not considered part of their duties.

“The question is whether we should use public funds to provide a lawyer for a government official or employee who is accused, for example, of having committed a crime, especially if it is a serious crime. , because generally, no charge can be brought unless there is sufficient evidence to file a complaint? “he said.

“It’s a bit worrying but at the same time, we haven’t yet seen what specific proposals will come out of this statement,” Diokno said.

In his last State of the Nation address on Monday, Duterte said it was “high time” for the country “to pass a law that would provide free legal assistance to AFP and PNP agents. , has enlisted staff to assist them against charges arising from incidents related to the performance of official duties. “

Speaking to ANC Rundown on Tuesday, Bayan Muna party list representative Ferdinand Gaite said the move could be in anticipation of possible charges to be brought against misguided cops and soldiers.

“They already expect that after Duterte’s administration or even now… they would have to face the music.” By following orders such as kill, kill, kill, arrest opposition and anti-Duterte groups, I think they already expect a large number of cases to be filed against these authorities ”, Gaite said. .

According to official figures, more than 6,000 drug suspects have died in drug-fighting police operations, although human rights groups estimate the number could rise to more than 30,000.

The alliance of rights groups Karapatan said it has registered more than 400 human rights defenders who were victims of alleged extrajudicial killings during the Duterte administration.

All of this would have taken place as Duterte increased benefits and promised to protect his soldiers and cops.

“What Duterte has really done is pamper the military and police by increasing their salaries. They’ve doubled their salaries since taking over from Duterte, ”Gaite said.

“They have given AFP and PNP more advantages and privileges. They have ‘modernized’ the army and the police and yet we cannot see them improving in the defense of our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. We can’t really see them going after criminal organizations, especially the drug syndicate, “the lawmaker said.

GM POSITION

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said his department had a “standing directive” to the Office of the Public Prosecutor (PAO) to provide legal assistance to police officers up to level 4 (SPO4) and other uniformed personnel who are prosecuted in the exercise of their functions. functions.

“PAO has existing memorandum circulars to its public prosecutors regarding this issue. The provision of free legal assistance, however, is subject to the PAO’s assessment of the case, including a determination of conflict of interest, such as when the opposing party has also requested legal assistance from the PAO, ”he said. he declared.

Guevarra also mentioned that the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have special funds to cover legal fees for cops or soldiers who hire lawyers of their choice.

“Perhaps an increased budget allocation for this purpose will be sufficient, assuming existing funds are insufficient,” he said.

LEGAL ASSISTANCE VS LEGAL PROTECTION

But does providing legal assistance to cops or soldiers accused of wrongdoing run counter to the focus of the DOJ’s War on Drugs review and its AO 35 panel investigating executions? extrajudicial?

Guevarra made a distinction between legal assistance and legal protection.

“Legal aid is not the same as legal protection. It is simply a matter of providing law enforcement officers with the means to defend themselves in court for acts committed in the course of their official duties, such as fighting terrorists and criminals, “said the Minister of Justice. responsible.

“Unless their guilt is proven, they are presumed innocent. Like all of us, they also have the right to due process, ”he added.

In a previous interview, Guevarra told ABS-CBN News that only a handful of relatives of drug war victims have come forward to press charges against the police in part for fear of reprisal.

But he stressed the need for them to come forward and cooperate with the DOJ investigation to move the case forward.

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