Another Pandemic: An Attack on Lawyers

Around the globe there is another pandemic that has largely gone under the radar. It threatens the body politic, destruction of democracy. It is the attacks on lawyers.

Lawyers are targeted in a very large number of countries around the globe. The Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers has 126 countries on its list of countries where attacks on lawyers have occurred.

These attacks are often violent, resulting in death or serious injury. But in many countries the attacks are not murderous, rather they are intended to prevent lawyers from pursuing their professional duties as lawyers. For example, trumped up criminal charges and detention; accusations of causing public disorder and jailed; imprisoned for defending human rights of the Other-be it a minority, a human rights defender, a labor union leader, an indigenous community, critics of the government, peasants, environmental activists. Or just jailed for being aligned with a political opposition. In some countries, in particular China, the government revokes the lawyer’s licence to practise, a professional death sentence.

I have been monitoring the attacks on lawyers in the Philippines for over a decade. For many years the Philippines has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for lawyers. Since 2001 there have been at least 219 volent attacks in which 197 lawyers were killed and 22 survived.

The intensity of the violent attacks has increased dramatically under the current regime of President Duterte. His election campaign was based on promises of widespread killing to solve crime and corruption e.g. “criminals have no rights”, and “elimination of drugs”. He promised impunity for the gunmen, and threatened to deal harshly with those who protect “drug addicts”-lawyers.

For Duterte human rights were a smokescreen for those who were “destroying the country.”

Gill H. Boehringer, Co-Chair of the Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers of the International Association of People’s Lawyers

The Case of Attorney Rex Fernandez

Supreme Court Associate Justice Leonen has called for submissions on the killing of Atty. Rex Fernandez in order to determine if there are patterns in the killing of Philippine lawyers into which his death fits. (See at the bottom of the page for links to media accounts of the circumstances of the killing.)

I will show that there are indeed such patterns. The sad case of this latest killing in Cebu City can be seen as representing many of the patterns discovered in research carried out on attacks on lawyers for the past two decades by the International Association of People’s Lawyers. The empirical research has been carried out by the Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers (MCAL), Co-chaired by myself and Professor Stuart Russell.

Numbers of violent attacks on lawyers

We have examined the circumstances in 219 violent attacks on lawyers under Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte. In those attacks 197 lawyers were killed since 2001, while 22 survived the attack.

Here are the overall comparative numbers of violent attacks we have recorded, broken down by the role of the lawyers:

  • Arroyo: Attorneys – 58 killed, no survivors; Judges-18 killed, 2 survivors; Prosecutors- 7 killed, 2 survivors. 83 killed in 87 murderous attacks (in 113.3 months)
  • Aquino: Attorneys – 34 killed, 0 survivors; Judges- 8 killed, 0 survivors; Prosecutors-5 killed, 1 survivor. 47 killed in 48 murderous attacks (in 72 months)
  • Duterte: Attorneys – 49 killed,10 survivors; Judges-8 killed, 3 survivors; Prosecutors-10 killed, 4 survivors. 67 killed in 84 murerous (in 62 months).

Rate of killings under three Presidents

The rate of killing of lawyers under last three Presidents are:

  • Duterte: 1.08 per month ( 67 killed in 62 months)
  • Aquino: .65 per month ( 47 “ in 72 “ )
  • Arroyo: .74 per month ( 83 “ in 113.3 “ )

Patterns in our research

The MCAL is nearing completion of a comprehensive Report on the attacks on 68 Judges and Prosecutors during the Presidencies of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte. That report will soon be completed and submitted to the Supreme Court. A number of the patterns we have found in that research, and in other attacks on Attorneys which we have considered, appear in the Fernandez case.


The present Submission is based primarily on the results of our research into Judges and Prosecutors, including survivors. The survivors should not be excluded from the review by the Supreme Court nor by monitoring groups and analysts of the lawyer killings. For analytical purposes, the only significant difference between the dead and the survivors is the good fortune of the latter.


We also use our other research on the attacks on paralegals to comment on the need to recognize that such attacks offer insights on who is doing the killings more generally, but also honoring our colleagues without whom the task of protecting human rights would be a great deal more difficult.

Patterns of attacks and the killing of Rex Fernandez

  1. The perpetrators ambushed RF. This is a common modus operandi. An ambush requires knowledge of where the victim will be and a plan for attack and to get away safely and quickly. This was a well organized “hit”. The gunman was waiting for RF to slow down at an intersection. He then ran to the side of the car and shot RF dead.
  2. RF was apparently driving at a regular time and by a regular route otherwise the attackers would not have been certain of the place for the ambush.

It is possible, but there are no facts to support the assumption, that there was a lookout at the place of departure who could signal by phone to the attackers when RF was leaving and even possibly tail him so as to inform the attackers what route he was on, so the attackers could get into position. Even so, it is still the case that they would have had advance information about when and from where he would likely depart. Regularity in movements and time are an invitation for ambush. With the technology available today such ambushing is easily implemented.

  1. The perpetrators chose to attack while the victim was in his vehicle. A high percentage (73.5%) of attacks on Judges and Prosecutors occur while the victim is travelling in a vehicle, parking it, entering or alighting from it.
  2. The time of the killing, just after 4 p. m., is consistent with the pattern of attacks we have recorded. A large percentage of the killings take place when the lawyer is going to or leaving work, mainly in a vehicle. From the reports we have seen, there was a staff member in the car, therefore we assume the car was probably being driven after leaving the law office or perhaps the Courts. The most favored times for the 68 attacks were: 12 attacks from 0700-to 1000; 12 attacks from 1100-1300; 13 attacks from 1500 to .1700.

We believe the pattern for Attorneys would not differ greatly from this.

  1. Lawyer killings are not spread evenly over the days of the week. Atty fernandez was killed on Thursday, a day when relatively few killings occur. That fact perhaps demonstrates the difficulty in finding definite patterns by which to plan defence and protection.

The number of attacks on each day of the week is as follows, with the numbers for Duterte in parentheses: Sunday 4 (1); Monday 12 (4); Tuesday 13 (5); Wednesday 11 (3); Thursday 5 (1); Friday 16 (8); Saturday 7 (3).

We believe the pattern for Attorneys would not differ greatly from this.

  1. Riding- in- tandem before, during or after the shooting is a major technique used by gunmen in killing lawyers. This does not seem to have been altered even though some measures have been taken in recent years, by legislation, to limit the effectiveness of this method of transport by perpetrators.

The number in our study: 36 attacks riding in tandem, 53%. In 2 other attacks the gunman was riding a motorcycle solo.

We believe that the slight reduction in the rate of killings in the Covid era may reflect the increased number of police and military check points whereby the movement of gunmen on motorcycles is more risky. In a major city such as Cebu where Atty Fernandez was attacked, however, that risk is probably not much higher than normal as escape routes are numerous and the distance necessary to travel from the attack is probably not great.

  1. The gunman apparently used a .45 calibre pistol, which is often used by gunmen riding-in-tandem. The numbers of the weapons used in the 68 attacks are as follows: .45 cal. pistol 18; .9mm pistol 5 ; other pistol calibre not identified 27. Other weapons: knife or other cutting implement 8; long firearm 7; bomb/grenade 3.
  2. Atty Fernandez apparently had received indications that he was a potential victim. According to media reports, he had stated that there were various people/organizations that wanted him “out of the way”. It is often the case that lawyers are given an indication that they are targets, and many receive death threats. Obviously action needs to be taken in such circumstances to protect the apparent target.

The PNP has said that a lawyer with concerns that they might be a target should report their concerns to them and a police escort would be provided.. However there are some problems with that solution. Police are not trusted by many activists, critics of the government and human rights lawyers. Also, in our research we found that in 2 cases the police security failed. In one instance, the police escort failed to show up by the time of a morning attack, while another was in a vehicle following the lawyer’s vehicle when the attack occurred. And, of course, some police have been involved in the attack (we reference e.g. the case of Attorney Argel Cabatbat. See the discussion of Defence below. See also the discussion of Impunity below))

  1. The pattern of killing human rights lawyers such as Atty Fernandez is well documented. Indeed, they have been targets of attack at least since the 1980s. A dozen or more FLAG lawyers have been killed, mostly in the earlier period. These are thought by many to have been military operations. {See e.g. D.F.Orentlicher, “Lawyers under seige” Index on Censorship, May, 1985, 38-9). Later, after the founding of the NUPL in 2007, a substantial number of its members, nearly another dozen, have been killed or murderously attacked, often having been “red tagged”, e.g. the attack on Attorney Criselda Heredia and a number of paralegals (William Bugatti; Richard Mayumi and Brandon Lee). All of these were “warned”, intimidated, about their human rights work, essentially threatened, by military. In fact, the military has “red tagged” the NUPL itself for years.

Violent attacks on NUPL lawyers have continued under President Duterte who has encouraged the attacks by his statements condemning human rights and those who seek to protect them in law, sometimes naming the NUPL specifically. Many other kinds of attacks are made by military personnel and the police officers. [ I enumerate these in my evidence presented to an International People’s Tribunal. See my Affidavit to the International People’s Tribunal on the Crimes of the Duterte Regime, Brussels, Belgium, September 18-19, 2018]

  1. Motives, in most of the attacks on lawyers, are very difficult to ascertain without thorough investigation. We do not know the motive in the Fernandez case. That is another pattern due to the high percentage of “unsolved” cases.

It is likely that his killing was not the result of a personal grudge or dispute, nor was it robbery. The only possible such motive may have been held by the owners of the condominium with whom Fernandez had been in dispute. Such personal cases constitute a small minority of cases, particularly under President Duterte. We think that it is unlikely that the corporation would have taken such extreme measures. (I speak from experience having been in a not dissimilar dispute with a corporation that had developed our condominium. Their main action was to file a legal action in defamation, while another (construction) corporation in the dispute sent me a death barong!

As it happens, a report from Cebu City suggests that the police believe the killing was likely to be a personal matter. While I think their reasons are not yet convincing, we look forward to further developments. (See

Looking at the cases handled by Atty Fernandez, it seems they are such that the police or military would have had reasons for his liquidation. Police and military personnel appear to be linked with many of the deaths of lawyers handling human rights cases (and drug cases, although there is no suggestion that he was handling such cases). Several of the 68 cases in our research on attacks on Judges and Prosecutors appear likely to have resulted from a failure of conviction in cases involving criminal charges brought by police or involving the alleged murder of a soldier.

As we cannot be certain of the motive of the attackers (or more important on many cases) the “masterminds” who organize, pay for or direct the attack, we categorize the attacks as follows. Of the 68 Judges and Prosecutors attacked, we categorize them as follows with the Duterte numbers (out of 25) in parentheses:

  • Work related, drugs 19 (15);
  • Work related other than drugs 34 (8);
  • Personal 14 (2);
  • Political in traditional sense (electoral) 1 (0)

A Tale of Two Warlords- Andal Ampatuan, Rodrigo Duterte, and the Philippines’ Mutating Politics FORSEA

Defence of lawyers and their security

  1. Armed lawyers. Atty Fernandez was not armed, nor were the others in the car. This is the general pattern in lawyer killings. While it is not a solution to the problem of attacks on lawyers, in some cases we have examined possessing a weapon in the vehicle and using it against attackers can foil the attack.

Arming lawyers has advantages and disadvantages as any solution by firearms will carry. In one case it was the misuse of his firearm that resulted in the death of a Judge under President Arroyo:

Judge Ibnohajil Hassan – February 4, 2001 San Jose, Occidental Mindoro

Judge Hassan had decided to arm himself for protection. He carried a pistol. He and a group of friends were at a bar/restaurant on a Sunday evening. Another group at a table in the same area were rather boisterous. He may have asked them to quieten down. In any case, at about 2230 he fired a shot in their direction, wounding one of them. Thereupon they attacked the Judge and beat him to death.

  1. There was no private bodyguard with Atty Fernandez, nor was there a police escort in the car. Again this is not unusual.

While bodyguards and police escorts are not always successful in defending a lawyer, and a number of them have been killed in trying to do so, from our research it seems likely that the chances of surviving an attack are somewhat greater where there is close-in armed security.

Below we provide some empirical data that is relevant to the issue of providing security by armed defence. In our research on Judges and Prosecutors we found 4 cases in which formal armed security had been arranged prior to the incident. We also found 3 cases (one involving an Attorney) in which a form of armed security operated coincidentally as an attack unfolded.

Cases where armed security was provided for the lawyer prior to the attack:

Judge Reynaldo Espinar – November 22, 2015 ,Pambujan, Samar

Judge Espinar attended a cockfight on a Sunday afternoon. While in the audience watching the fighting cocks, he was approached by a lone gunman who shot him dead. The Judge’s police escort shot and killed the gunman as he attempted to flee from the cockpit.

Judge Hector Salise  – September 23, 2016, Butuan, Agusan del Norte, Mindanao

Judge Salise was a passenger in his car with a police escort driving. They were ambushed by several gunmen in a SUV. The attackers opened up with fire from an M16 and a .45 calibre pistol. Both the Judge and his security were wounded. The latter was able to get off some shots at the attackers and this resulted in their flight. Both the Judge and his police escort recovered from their wounds.

Prosecutor Rolando Acido – October 26, 2016, Mati City, Davao Oriental, Mindanao

Prosecutor Acido drove to work and parked his car at the Hall of Justice. Apparently, for unexplained reasons, his police escort was following in another vehicle. When the Prosecutor alighted from his vehicle he was shot dead. The attacker fled.

Prosecutor Manuel Tesiorna – February 6, 2017, Surigao City, Mindanao

Prosecutor Tesiorna, apprehensive about his safety following the killing of a retired Judge in the City and the death threats he had received, arranged for a police escort. One morning while washing his car in preparation for driving to work, he was shot 4 times by a gunman who then fled riding-in-tandem. The police escort was said to be “on his way” to Tesiorna’s home when the attack occurred. The Prosecutor survived.

Coincidental Security Cases

Prosecutor Theresa Casiño – January 22, 2013 ,Cebu City, Cebu

Prosecutor Casiño was inside the Cebu City Hall of Justice, advancing up the central stairway to the Court room level. One Nicholas Pope had just shot dead a lawyer and his client inside a court room and was fleeing the scene of the crime. As he fled he shot at the Prosecutor, wounding her, and was shot dead by Court security. She survived.

Attorney Argel Cabatbat* February 13, 2018 Quezon City, Metro Manila

Attorney Cabatbat was being driven in his vehicle with two other passengers. Two motorcycles with 3 men came alongside and fired at the Cabatbat vehicle. None of the targets were wounded. The driver chased the motorcycles while one of the passengers apparently took a pistol (unlicensed) from the dashboard compartment and fired at the fleeing attackers. One was killed and another wounded. The driver ran down the motorcycles. One attacker escaped while the wounded attacker was arrested. The dead man was a police officer. Cabatbat and others were charged with homicide and various firearms offences. Quezon City District Police OIC, Superintendent Eleazar (now Chief of the PNP) said the homicide charges were “procedural”, normal where there is a homicide.

*We use this only as an example. Cabatbat was not included in our research on Judges and Prosecutors. The case raises a number of issues, in particular that of civilian use of (unlawfully possessed) firearms to kill when it appears they were no longer in a life threatening situation but were chasing the perpetrators. Indeed, first reports indicated that the driver ran down the motorcycles, killing one of the attackers.

Prosecutor Tucod Rondo February 21, 2020, Cotabato City, Maguindanao

Prosecutor Rondo had just driven away from his residence with two passengers, young relatives, in his van. They were ambushed by a group of men in a van at a nearby cross street. From a fusillade of bullets Rondo was slightly wounded and the two passengers were critically wounded. The gunmen alighted from their vehicle and were about to open Rondo’s van in order to finish the job. A neighbor, an off duty policeman, heard the gunfire and came out into the street, firing warning shots. The attackers retreated, jumped into their van and departed the scene. All three wounded survived.


Formal security cases

  • In all 4 cases the targeted Judge/Prosecutor was wounded or killed.
  • In 1 case the police escort was probably responsible for saving the life of the Judge. (Salise)
  • In 1 case the Judge was killed and the police escort then shot the perpetrator dead. (Espinosa)
  • In 2 cases the police security failed Prosecutors. (Acido killed; Tesiorna survived)

Coincidental Security Cases

  • In 1 case it is certain that the intervention of the “security” saved the Prosecutors life and that of 2 passengers. (Rondo)
  • In 1 case the Prosecutor was wounded and the “security” shot the perpetrator dead. (Casiño}
  • In 1 case no one was wounded by the gunmaen’s shots, and the “security” shot a perpetrator dead, wounded another who was arrested. (Cabatbat)

From the above it can be seen that having security, formal or coincidental, resulted in:

  • 2 Judges/Prosecutors lives saved, and reduced consequential harm: 2 passengers lives saved
  • 2 Judges killed
  • 1 Prosecutor killed
  • 4 Prosecutors wounded
  • 3 perpetrators dead
  • 1 perpetrator arrested
  • 1 Attorney and his colleagues charged for various offences
  1. The car driven by Atty Fernandez was not armoured. In the one case we have found where the vehicle of the target of the attack was armoured, the Prosecutor was unscathed as the fusillade of bullets did not penetrate the car. It was a well planned attack as the Prosecutor had just lunched at his favorite restaurant where he ate regularly. Gunmen ambushed him in the crowded street outside the restaurant and sprayed the vehicle with bullets. While such vehicles are expensive there certainly is a case for providing such vehicles to some at least of the most endangered Judges and Prosecutors and human rights Attorneys who make up a significant percentage of those attacked under President Duterte.

Of course one cannot protect lawyers 24/7. Although a high percentage of attacks occur when lawyers are in their vehicles, they are of course vulnerable when out of their vehicle. Some have been killed in their office, others while in their garden or inside their residence, a number while in their bed.

A problem in escalating security by using armoured vehicles is the possible escalation of the weaponry used in the attack. In some of the cases where lawyers are killed there are organizations involved such as drug syndicates, AFP, PNP, that have access to very heavy and destructive weaponry, and high explosives. In the case we have described, rockets or bombs/grenades would likely have led to consequential harm of a number of innocent bystanders.

Consequential harm

  1. One pattern that has been little considered in public discussion of lawyer killings is the consequential harm caused in the attacks. We have noted that in a substantial number of cases there are others who are wounded or killed. And of course there is mental trauma that can be quite serious for onlookers, family, friends and colleagues. The costs of these additional harms, including medical and other care, loss of work capacity, loss of capacity for other service such as teaching or parenting children, etc. to society is beyond the scope of our research but it must be substantial.

In the Fernandez case the driver was wounded and required hospital treatment. The passenger in the back seat was not physically injured but must have suffered mental trauma.

We believe that riding with a lawyer without security is a very dangerous activity. A substantial number of the staff and wives of Judges and Prosecutors have been killed or seriously wounded in the attacks we have monitored.

The many consequential costs involved in these killings should be factored into any consideration of the cost to the government to provide increased protection for lawyers.


  1. Impunity is likely to be the result for the killing of Attorney Fernandez as it has been generally in lawyer killings.

Lack of Deterrent

The most important factor in protecting lawyers is the effectiveness of the judicial system. As studies in criminology have revealed, the most effective deterrent to offending is not the severity of sanctions – offenders do not believe they will be caught – but the certainty of conviction. By that measure the Philippine judicial system has been a notable failure for decades. As Prof. John Molo, also an Attorney, explains: ‘The legal profession is suffering from a silent epidemic, its members stalked by assassins who have stopped being afraid of the Rule of Law… If the members of a powerful profession can be gunned down with impunity, where does that leave the less fortunate?” ( In “The silent epidemic stalking Filipino lawyers’ Rappler Nov. 24, 2020)

While it is true that in the Presidency of President Arroyo there were many murder charges filed against arrested suspects, some trials and a few convictions, that low standard was never met under President Benigno Aquino III. In the reign of President Duterte the results have been exceedingly poor. According to a Rappler report, only 5 cases have been brought to the courts, and these are among the small number of cases that do not involve killings by any of the “dark forces” suspected of responsibility for attacks on human rights lawyers and critics of the government. We might say these cases are “low hanging fruit”. (See Lian Buan, “Only 5 cases reached the courts in 54 lawyer killings since 2016” Rappler Dec. 1, 2020; see also ibid, “In alarming rise of PH lawyer killings, what is being done?’ Rappler Nov. 25, 2020. And see on EJKs generally, ibid, “DOJ’s task force vs EJKs: Few convicted, most perpetrators cleared” Rappler Sept. 3, 2020).

Inadequate Investigations

Thorough and comprehensive investigations are the sine qua non of a judicial system that supports a functioning rule of law. Unfortunately this basic activity has been missing, according to the Report of an International Fact Finding Mission, organized by the Day of the Endangered Lawyer Foundation, Netherlands and including representatives from a number of legal profession groups from Europe and the USA. [See Lian Buan, “International probers: No effective investigation of lawyer killings in PH” Rappler Mar. 8, 2019.]. Why this is so is beyond the scope of this Submission, but there are suspicions, based on past incidents, that police and military operatives have been involved in a number of cases and that a lack of investigation required is a protective shield for those institutions.

Prosecutorial decisions

There are also concerns that prosecutorial decisions not to prosecute alleged perpetrators because of “insufficient evidence” may have been tainted in cases involving suspects who are police officers ( e.g. in the cases of Prosecutor Velasco and Atty. Golla). These cases are often compared by critics to the ease with which trumped up charges are filed against lawyers and other human rights and environmental rights defenders, labor and other activists and critics of the government. [ See generally Lian Buan, “Lawyers to question before Supreme Court role of prosecutors in EJKs” Rappler Nov. 20, 2017.]

The President’s role

There is no doubt that the role of the President in inspiring human rights violations has been a major factor in creating impunity for those who commit such violations, especially those in state forces. His often repeated statements criticising human rights and their supporters, and that he would protect those alleged to have violated human rights e.g that he would have their back, that they would not go to prison, etc. “had inspired PNP officers to commit human rights violations”, as admitted by a PNP spokesperson on ABS-CBN TV (Karen Davila morning show). [See my Affidavit to the International People’s Tribunal on the Crimes of the Duterte Regime, Brussels, Belgium, September 18-19, 2018]

In a damning report, the Commission on Human Rights found that the “grim reality” of being a human rights defender in the Philippines was that “they faced constant undermining and delegitimization of their work which lead to systematic attacks that place their ‘life, liberty, and security…at great risk”. According to the report “The President through his pronouncements created a dangerous fiction that it is legitimate to hunt down and commit atrocities against HRDs because they are enemies of the state’ and that his allies and supporters “demonize” human rights work”. [See Jodesz Gavilan, “Duterte created “dangerous fiction” vs rights defenders-CHR Report” Rappler July 10, 2020].

When a President claims that “criminals have no rights” and specifically identifies lawyers with their clients, alleged suspects, this cannot help but invite murderous attacks on those whose legal professional duty is to protect the accused. In doing so, the President has violated the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which states unequivocally that lawyers must not be identified with their clients. (See, in particular ”Guarantees for the functioning of lawyers”, Art. 16,17 and 18.

Our Report on the attacks on Judges and Prosecutors will provide a more complete and detailed account of the patterns referred to above.

Gill H. Boehringer

Professor Gill H. Boehringer is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Macquarie University Law School, Sydney, Australia. He has a long history of struggle for social justice and against repression and exploitation of  workers, those who defend them, and to protect the environment.

He is the Co-Chair of the Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers of the International Association of People’s Lawyers. His ongoing research focuses on two interconnected phenomenon threatening the basis of democracy in the Philippines: the murderous “war on drugs” and the violent attacks on lawyers, many of which are drug war related.

Join the DIALOGUE on Democratic Struggles Across Southeast Asia: Friday 17th September. Details in flyer below.

Links to media coverage and commentary on killing of Atty. Fernandez

Posted by Gill H. Boehringer

Professor Gill H. Boehringer is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Macquarie University Law School, Sydney, Australia. He has a long history of struggle for social justice and against repression and exploitation of workers, those who defend them, and to protect the environment. He is the Co-Chair of the Monitoring Committee on Attacks on Lawyers of the International Association of People’s Lawyers. His ongoing research focuses on two interconnected phenomenon threatening the basis of democracy in the Philippines: the murderous “war on drugs” and the violent attacks on lawyers, many of which are drug war related.