As Duterte appoints Justice Mario Lopez, Karapatan wary over declining judicial independence, weaponization of law

As President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Mario Lopez to the Supreme Court (SC), human rights group Karapatan expresses its deep concern over the declining independence of the judiciary that might equate to greater complicity over attacks against government critics and human rights activists.

“We are wary that the succession of High Court justices appointed by Duterte will lead to an erosion of judicial independence. This will mean complicity on human rights violations and the utilization of the SC to justify violations and reaffirm the passage of repressive and controversial policies. We are already seeing an increased weaponization of the law to criminalize dissent, thus we challenge the Judiciary to not be blinded by political ambitions or power, but to use their positions to dispense justice. The people do not deserve a Supreme Court that nitpicks on technicalities to adhere to the orders of the Executive branch,” Reylan Vergara, Karapatan Vice Chairperson said.

This week, the President has appointed Lopez, along with Appellate Justice Edgardo delos Santos, to the High Court to fill up two vacancies, spots left by retired justices Antonio Carpio and Francis Jardeleza. The appointment of the two newest associate justices is a step towards an administration-packed SC. By the time the President ends his term in 2022, a total of 13 would be his appointees, leaving only two justices as non-Duterte appointees.

Prior to the appointment of Lopez, President Duterte also appointed Diosdado Peralta as the new Supreme Court Chief Justice on October 23. Karapatan noted that aside from favoring martial law extensions in Mindanao and the burial of late dictator Marcos, Peralta also upheld the legality of Senator Leila De Lima's arrest, the closure of Boracay and the ouster of former Chief Justice Sereno. Moreover, Peralta also voted to dismiss the writ of kalikasan filed by fishermen from Zambales and Palawan, following incursions against China.

According to the Karapatan official, the dominance in number of Duterte appointees is worrying: “The propensity of this regime to legitimize repression can only be complete if the Judiciary bends its knee to blindly do the bidding of this government. We have seen how dangerous this can be, in terms of justifying the attacks against critics like CJ Sereno and Senator Leila de Lima, and in the passage of repressive policies such as the unlimited martial law,” he said.

Vergara cited the numerous trumped-up charges fabricated to put activists behind bars, and defective warrants that have led to the arbitrary raids of offices of legitimate people’s organizations and arrests of its officers and members. Even efforts of human rights defenders to seek accountability and protection amid consecutive attacks can easily be sidelined with a subservient Judiciary. He noted that the petition for the writ of amparo filed by rights groups Karapatan, Gabriela, and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) last May 6, 2019 was dismissed by the Court of Appeals’ 14th Division on June 28. The said decision was penned by Mario Lopez.

“It was Lopez who signed the decision denying our petitions for protection against State-perpetrated threats and violations such as the worsening attacks, terrorist-tagging, and the intensified campaign against human rights defenders. We doubt if the decision he penned has nothing to do with his appointment to the High Court,” he said, citing that the CA merely held a three-hour summary hearing on the petitions filed by the groups but did not allow petitioners to present testimonial evidence and other documents.

"We certainly do not want a new batch of thoughtless minions in the Duterte government. We have no doubt that these individuals have built their expertise and skills in their own field, but we challenge them to decide with the people's welfare in mind. We call on the Judiciary and those in the legal profession to join us in condemning government officials who abuse their power for personal gain, and not to be blinded by political favors. We challenge the Supreme Court to refuse in being used as an instrument of repression, and to uphold not just the letter, but the spirit of the law,” he concluded.