By Rupert Francis D. Mangilit
special to
20 July 2013


MANILA, Philippines — “Pro-abono.”

This, said Karapatan chairperson Marie Hilao-Enriquez, was how they would call Romeo Capulong because not only would he offer free legal service to victims of human rights violations, he would often also spend his own money to help them.

Friday evening, human rights lawyers and advocates from the Philippines and other countries gathered in Quezon City for the 1st Romeo T. Capulong Lecture Series in honor of the quintessential “people’s lawyer,” who died September last year at the age of 77.

When Capulong returned to the Philippines in 1986 after spending seven years in exile in the United States, what he really wanted to do was advance consumer rights, recalled Dr. Edelina dela Paz, who heads the Health Alliance for Democracy, who sought his legal advise as she did the groundwork for what would become the Council for Primary Health Care.

Rising to the challenge of the times

But the period after the country peacefully booted out the dictator Ferdinand Marcos also saw an alarming escalation in human rights violations, among these the brazen killing of known political activists like labor leader Rolando Olalia.

As his attention shifted to this growing concern, Dela Paz said Capulong was apologetic: “Pasensiya ka na, hindi na kita maaasikaso (I am sorry, I can’t attend to you anymore).”

Dela Paz, who would herself lead Karapatan, understood perfectly.

From then on, Capulong provided free legal assistance in case after case of human rights violations, telling his colleagues this was his passion.

He went on to found the Public Interest Law Center in 1989 and the National Union of People’s Lawyers in 2007, in effect helping birth a new generation of lawyers who, like him, found their calling in defending victims of injustice.

He also became legal consultant of the National Democratic Front peace negotiating panel.


In a clip from one of Capulong’s last interviews, which was shown during the lecture series, he explained why he was so committed to what he did: “Naniniwala ako sa pinaglalaban namin ng kliyente ko (I believe in what I and my clients fight for).”

One time, he said, “nag-away kami nu’ng judge. Binato ako ng folder. Kasi ‘yung moral outrage mo, ‘yung righteous indignation, lilitaw ‘yun. Minsan, ‘di mo ma-control (I and the judge fought. He hurled a folder at me. Because your moral outrage, your righteous indignation, will surface. Sometimes, you just can’t control it).”

“Gusto mong labanan ang masama (You want to fight evil). Just to keep you going,” he added.

Belgian Jan Fermon, a lawyer of Jose Ma. Sison, said Capulong was instrumental in blocking Communist Party of the Philippines founder from being forcibly returned to the country after he was arrested by Dutch police on a murder charge.

He said Capulong was responsible for exposing the fact that “witnesses put forward against (Sison) turned out to be professional assets of the AFP, and were used as witnesses in other similar cases.”


Fermon said years before he met Capulong, the Philippine lawyer had already built a reputation for his human rights work and established ties with European colleagues involved in similar causes.

Capulong, he said, had inspired young Dutch lawyers who were helping Sison in his bid to seek political asylum in the Netherlands to organize themselves into a public interest firm.

Fermon said given the Netherlands’ system, it was an uphill task.

“In the side in which we live, it’s a struggle for public interest lawyering to thrive. But we shared the view that a world without exploitation is possible and a necessity at this time,” he said.
The Switzerland-based Jean Paul Garbade, who helped efforts to recover the wealth stashed by the Marcos family in Swiss banks, said Capulong taught him the importance of building awareness about public lawyering.

Together, he said, they worked to bring media attention to the exploitation of Filipino domestic workers by European diplomats.

“Thanks to the pressure of campaigning,” Garbade said, complaints were filed and domestic workers realized they needed to speak up against unjust conditions such as dismally low wages.

Although “there was less success in the courts,” Garbade said the awareness their campaign raised has helped prevent the further abuse of Filipino workers in Europe.

Karapatan’s Enriquez, who also chairs SELDA, an organization of former political detainees instrumental in filing a class suit against the late Ferdinand Marcos for the atrocities committed during his dictatorship, said it was Capulong who taught her the importance of engaging media in exposing human rights violations.

“I will never forget our meetings at 6 in the morning,” Enriquez recalled, the memory bringing tears to her eyes. “He would discuss with me how to talk to the media about our case, what Marcos did to us. And although he was already sick, he would join me … in explaining (to the other Marcos victims] what is happening in the case.”


But for those he mentored, Capulong’s true legacy is how he encouraged and led them by example to become public interest lawyers.

PILC managing counsel Rachel Pastores recalled how Capulong liked to pose challenges on how to use the law to bring about social change, particularly how to get more lawyers interested in public interest work when the poverty incidence is high and human rights violations are rampant.

She quoted from one of Capulong’s last speeches, in which he explained what set “people’s lawyers” apart: “People’s lawyers … involve themselves in causes, cases and issues that fundamentally affect the lives of a large number of people, usually a sector of society or even the whole society itself.”

Another challenge was dealing with the vilification of lawyers engaged in human rights work, who not only ended up being branded “rebel sympathizers” and “enemies of the state” but also found themselves targeted for actual repression or worse.

NUPL secretary general Edre Olalia pointed to the recent branding of their organization and Karapatan as “enemies” by Philippine Army chief Lieutenant General Noel Coballes after they had criticized the promotion of Brigadier General Aurelio Balalad, one of the officers charged for allegedly torturing and illegal detaining 43 health workers accused of being communist rebels.

“But we actually do not mind,” Olalia said of the label, if it means they are enemies of those who violate human rights.


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