Stories from the Legal Clinic

He could not make eye contact. Dressed in the prescribed yellow t-shirt of the BJMP, Pao (not his real name) stuttered while narrating his ordeal and his case. He sat at a long wooden table. Two young lawyers reviewed his story and took notes. He does not know his assigned lawyer. He does not know when the next hearing would be.  

He was committed in jail since March. The crime alleged is a light one – alarm and scandal, a crime defined by our 84-year-old penal code as creating too much noise in public. The maximum penalty provided by law is only one month. To our surprise, he has been in jail for almost seven months!

They could not afford a meager bail bond and Pao’s mother can only occasionally visit since the cost of transportation is equally a burden. It gave us an impression that following up the case is too costly for the parents and they might have just resigned to the fact that jail might be a better alternative.  

Well, a seven-month Jail term is not a better alternative for an 18-year old whose only offense is creating noise in public. It is clearly an injustice. We deeply value the sacredness of liberty in our constitutional regime especially when the law itself entitles Pao an immediate release. His release, however, requires a court order.

We took the case and embarked on a procedural adventure to secure that release order. We traced Pao’s records in court later to find out that it was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. It was refilled to another court but the files could not be found immediately.  

The files were retrieved on a Tuesday morning. And to our surprise, the hearing for that case would be the next day – a seeming conspiracy of the universe!

We entered our appearances with the consent of the public attorney and manifested our discovery. The court immediately ordered his release based on Article 29 of the Revised Penal Code, to wit:

Whenever an accused has undergone preventive imprisonment for a period equal to or more than the possible maximum imprisonment of the offense charged to which he may be sentenced and his case is not yet terminated, he shall be released immediately without prejudice to the continuation of the trial thereof or the proceeding on appeal, if the same is under review.

4 days after, the city jail received the court order. Together with the City Social Welfare and Development Office, we coordinated with his family to accompany him upon his release. The CSWD also offered reintegration interventions for Pao such as alternative learning systems and other job opportunities.  

We know all too well that this is not an exceptional case. Many others languish in jail because of an overburden and clogged justice system. We realized that for our system to effectively run, we need consistent review and engagement from the private legal sector to aid our justice and penal institutions in capturing cases, which fell through the cracks.

After all, building a just and humane society found in our Preamble is just an abstract guide. We have to make it real in our practice through making a difference for justice in lives of others.

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This story comes from the #Libertas legal aid project. This is a joint program of the Local Government Unit of Cagayan de Oro and the Integrated Bar of the Philippine which seeks to review the cases of overstaying inmates in the City jail.      

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Reflections on Civil Liberties and the Tensions of our Time

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While analysts are busy interpreting the socio-political implications of the landmark Martial Law decision, I take on the simple task of reflecting, as a citizen, on how we can make sense of this proclamation and the broader paradigm that made it happen.

Many young Filipinos, including myself, who believe in human rights and healthy dissent, have suddenly been confronted by a public language that vilifies those who hold these values dear.

Suddenly, defending human rights have become synonymous with defending terrorists. Suddenly, questioning the propriety of proclaiming Martial Law has become synonymous with being unpatriotic.

How have we reached this point? In probing through events and trends, I have come to realize that the challenges we face can be seen as tensions between ideas.

General vs. Exception

If there is one thing that has become prominent in the past year, it is seeing the exception, the unusual, and the extraordinary become the general, common, and to some extent, the accepted norm. One clear example of this phenomenon is the sudden shift of public perception about the place of human rights in our institutions.

It seems that overnight, it moved from a central tenet of our democracy to some alien and western idea that impedes the attainment of public security.   This tension between the exception and the rule is also present in the continued exercise of martial law and more so, in the use of brute force in our own version of a drug war.

In an article by Randy David which inspired this first point of reflection, he pointed out that what political theorists are worried about is not so much of the abuse of martial law powers as the normalization of a state emergency without a formal declaration of the need for special powers. Here, he further states that the executive invokes public safety to justify adopting a “paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.”

If we allow this exception to become the rule, this momentum would eventually pave the way to a sustained erosion of our civil liberties.

Past vs. Present

In some degree, what I’ve observed is also a clash between a yearning for that imagined sense of order and discipline in the past and the instance of a tolerant and liberal society of the present.

Many have thrown criticism about the out-datedness of our current drug policy and how it seems to resurrect the spirit of our authoritarian past. They have cited failed experiences of other nations where the employment of brute force only exacerbated the social evil.

As an alternative, progressive leaders have been vocal in emphasizing the need to look at drugs as a health rather than a criminal problem even citing examples of successful modern nations. But this again was faced with ridicule coming from the “paradigm of security.”

As another manifestation of this tension, Martial Rule – a feared extraordinary power reserved for the most extreme of cases – has suddenly found its comfortable place in our present lives. Suddenly, the past horrors of martial rule became images of smiling civilians and courteous soldiers.

Though we should at least acknowledge this as a testament to our anti-martial law Constitution, we should remain highly vigilant for what separates tyranny and freedom is the silent waiver of the governed.

Us vs. Them

Labels and colored camps have become a common ingredient in our public discourse in the past year. But what is dangerous is the sweeping categorization of people based on political opinions. There is a loss of nuance in our debates and people now seem to deal in absolutes. If you are against the President, you are automatically a dilawan. If you are for human rights, you are an anti-Duterte. If you are against the Martial Law, you are against our own troops. And there is an army of trolls to make this a point.

This sort of polarization is dangerous to the health of our democratic institutions. When dissent is labeled as a threat to the security of the Republic and opposition is labeled as the cohort of evil, then we are at the brink of a downward spiral. We should find common grounds and converse in the spirit of citizenship. This is one way of breaking the wall of a society where what is only valid is what we want to hear.

Fake vs. Truth

Fake news hunting has become a habit for some truth warriors online but producing it has become a livelihood for others. The proliferation of fake news has poisoned our health and further polarized our views.

Even on the advent of the Marawi Siege, fake news was propped by no less than the Secretary of Justice himself earning him a complaint and a hash tag trending #fakenewsking. Lurking in social media, an army of faceless trolls and propaganda accounts continue to spew fake news targeting leaders who oppose the declaration of Martial Law with the intent of undermining their credibility and political capital.

If unabated, we can no longer decipher truth from propaganda. And once we accept propaganda as truth, then we blind ourselves to power. A society, which accepts the prophets of the powerful as the messenger of absolute truth has condemned itself to slavery.

The Three V’s

As citizens, let us not overwhelm ourselves. What we can do to calm these tensions of our time is to be vigilant, to verify, and to value.

In the presence of heightened security, let us cooperate with authorities but also remain highly vigilant. It is important that we let the powerful know that we are accounting. This entails a deeper appreciation of the liberties we are defending as well as the remedies to enforce it.

In the sea of fake news, verify. Before sharing anything online or offline, it is wise to verify if the information is reliable and accurate. It helps by also reminding our own spheres of influence to do the same. Let us not contribute to the poison. Call out and take down false news.

Lastly, facts and information can only make sense through the lens of our personal values. It is important to always recheck what do we value as a public good. Let us remember that a society’s true measure is found in how it treats its outcasts, unwanted and despised.

Hearing about an extra-judicial killing in our neighborhood remains just another news item if we do not value the idea of justice for all. Abuses of people in power remains an accepted norm if we do not value our freedom.

We all want the best for our Republic. We might differ in what values that must take precedent but we are all Filipinos in the end. We are born out of blood and struggle. We are hospitable, resilient, big-hearted, generous and freedom-loving.

Student Organizations as Social Justice Advocates

 

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Central to mission of Jesuit education is the formation of men and women ready to meet the demands and needs of the world.

This characteristic entails a course of action that goes beyond the idea of education as an economic function. More profoundly, it entails a way of proceeding that treats education as a redeeming and transforming experience directed ultimately to attain social justice.

Xavier has various programs designed to bridge theory and practice within the context of social development. We have seen this manifest in NSTP, FFP and the Service Learning Program (SLP) . Mostly are curriculum-based anchored in existing programs.

But outside the confines of the classroom and curriculum, there is a fertile ground for deepening commitment to the work of social justice within the praxis framework. This is in the community of student organizations.

Student organizations, beyond its contribution to the vibrant community life, are mediums of formation. If guided accordingly, it can become effective vehicles of learning particularly in the field of social development.

Having this in mind, the idea of incorporating “social justice science” in the leadership development program of student organizations could be worth exploring. This could start by investing on trainings that would deepen 3 core competencies that work side by side with organizational management skills:

(1) Social analysis

(2) Policy and issue advocacy

(3) Public leadership

Social analysis would help student organizations situate their position in the greater social context, understand the forces that sustain an issue and draw a general plan of action with respect to that issue.

Policy and issue advocacy could help the student organization draw a communication plan to help address a social concern.

Public Leadership would teach them how to lead organizations interacting with government, communities and other stakeholders.

Presently, there are already clear efforts in orienting student organizations towards this role. This is laudable and requires continued support.

With these three areas as rough starting points, we hope to see the growth of student organizations that commit to social causes, improve public institutions and form leaders committed to social development and ultimately, to social justice.

 

Photo grabbed from Xavier University

The CDO Local School Board: 3 years on

As I was sitting there, kissed by the 8:00 am sunshine in Kiosko Kagawasan, listening to the Mayor’s report, it dawned on me how world opening the past three years was in my personal journey in this field of youth and policy work.

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“Policy work” would be a definite sleeping pill for most people but to my mind, it has defined my choices in this period of my life and my experience in the Local School Board (LSB) is my first real experience of being “in” government. It has given me tremendous learning on political dynamics and public administration as well knowing committed public servants in City Hall and in the Department of Education.

This story started 3 years ago. I was appointed by then the newly elected city mayor Oscar S. Moreno to sit as the youth representative of the expanded local school board. This body handles the “special education funds” which is derived from the real property taxes. Money there is plowed back to the city in the form of school buildings, administrative and other education related expenses.

The expansion of representation was premised on the belief that it takes the whole village to educate a child. Up scaling it to our context, education reform requires the participation of all sectors.  The LSB now includes members from the private basic education sector, teachers and parents association, faith groups and business groups.

As the months roll on after our constitution, the body, which is mostly composed of private individuals, had its fair share of political intrigue. We can only surmise that the polarizing political climate then has spawned these kinds of intrigues ranging from allegations of overpriced school buildings to the very legality of the school board expansion itself.

These attacks were met with favorable opinions from the Department of Education and the Commission on Audit and last May 9 and after 441 classrooms were built, the people reaffirmed their approval with a fresh and convincing mandate.

Now that we are gearing for the second phase of the education reform agenda, I am more excited of the things we can achieve together. The LSB will continue to invest in school building constructions especially in far-flung barangays, strengthen training of teachers and eliminate classroom shortages. As the representative of the youth sector, we are now slowly transitioning to the SK representation and the constitution of the Oro Youth Development Council by virtue of an ordinance.

With these two major policy push, we are hoping to restart our effort in lobbying for a students rights and welfare ordinance through the SK in the City Council. At the same time, we also hope to partner with the local school board to formalize a training program for various student government officers on project management, social accountability, systems thinking and public leadership.

It is truly an exciting time for the education sector in the city. I do not make this statement just because of my political persuasions. I speak from the facts and numbers achieved. We have a long way to go in improving our education services especially that the K-12 program is rolling out for the first time but I am confident that the initial foundations are properly cemented.

Cagayan de Oro will be in a better position to face the challenges of a 21st century economy with these continuous investments in education. We are known as a hub in the island and we have to surpass this expectation by making it not just a hub for logistics, but a beacon of hope and a city of educated people ready to meet the greater world.

 

 

Social Media and Accountability: From Pork Barrel to a Mini-dumpsite

Clicktivism. It has often been described as an easy-access medium for concerned citizens who just don’t have the time to express their strong views on issues outside their smartphones. It comes in many ways and forms. An example of one getting popular is the change.org platform where people, with a click, can enlist their names in a petition typically addressed to governments. This of course works in the premise that governments take notice when there is a substantial base of support in the ground.

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The case of the recent Million People March Against Pork in the light of the massive corruption scandal is one good case study on this matter. It started as an “event” on Facebook but swelled into a leaderless mass movement, fuelled by the sheer anger of the tax-burdened middle class, whose epicenter of protest in Luneta inspired similar indignation rallies across the nation. This eventually resulted into the “scrapping” of pork in the national budget and the landmark decision of the Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional.

This is a good example of how activism online resulted to real concrete action in the streets, which later on resulted into policy changes and a new legal framework.

While the sustainability of the movement is another story, the impact of online activism translating into action is a lesson we need to learn as a developing democracy.

Though the Pork Barrel campaign was a product of a frustration national in magnitude and the result was also national in scope, the lessons learned from this can very much well apply, and more compellingly so in the local context particularly in the aspect of social accountability of the City or Municipal Hall. It is nearer to the people and results are seen and felt.

Government services and infrastructure are some of the basic obligations of local government. In the course of our engagement with city hall, we have observed that highlighting inefficiencies online, which is capable of being immediately remedied, can be a good starting point on building trust, good will and engagement between people and government.

One particular case involves a marker on a newly built bridge in the city – JR Borja Bridge. Part of the bridge design was the construction of a commemorative marker shaped liked a ray of the sun. No problem with the “ray” design but interestingly enough, it was permanently attached over the 2-meter wide walkway of the bridge. This ray sticking out of the pavement virtually blocked pedestrian flow. If people use the walkway, they have to step down the main road and step back again.

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This is ridiculous and dangerous.

So bewildered citizens started snapping a picture of this peculiar monument, posted it online and tagged people in power. Thank you to social media and a letter addressed to DPWH, that structure was removed and was never seen again. (but then again, public money has already been spent.)

Another one involves a citizen who, presumably prying into his office window, was shocked to see that the rooftop of a public toilet in the historic heart of the city has become a mini-dumpsite. Thanks to technology and social media again, that citizen took a picture. He posted it in one Facebook group dedicated for local public discourse and garnered so many hits. People in charge were tagged and they responded. The next day, it was ordered cleaned.

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These examples may not determine policy or change a whole set of legal framework but they do produce points of interaction and a good starting ground for trust building between people and government.

I guess the bigger question should be how these things should never happen again but the point is people are encouraged to report because they see results. If we continue to make this as a trend, it spurs a sense of co-ownership among citizens and develops an institutional attitude in city hall that social media mood matters and the Facebook can be a platform to build goodwill.

Unlike the Pork Barrel movement, which led people out in the streets and changed national policy, the experience we had was an example of what social scientists describe as short-route accountability. It denotes a form of direct client feedback, co-management and a choice related to services provided. This is opposed to long-route accountability, which involves mandates and change in policy design, much like what the Pork Barrel movement did.

Short-route accountability is a doable start in building stronger public institutions in the local level. When an issue presents itself and people come together, be it in the form of a comment or a share or a tag to push government to do a certain act or correct a wrong, such as cleaning up a rooftop (how ridiculous it might sound), it forces the local government to respond and help shape an engaging attitude.

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So the next time we hear the word “clicktivism”, it might be good to consider it a good thing under the idea of short-route accountability. The combination of a compelling picture of remediable fault, a network of concerned citizens (conveniently together in one online group), and a social media savvy city hall can bring a long way in improving development outcomes in the locality even as simple as removing a road block.

Democracy should be built bottom-up and the local government, being the closest to the people, is the laboratory to do this.

 

A Political Breakthrough: The Election of Risa Hontiveros

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Who would have known that doing a Pia Wurtzbach would also work in the universe of politics?

I imagine Senator-elect Risa Hontiveros would highlight this point in her impending victor speech that indeed, third time’s the charm.

With her consistent message of “healthy pinoy, health pinas” and a growing name recall, the lady who was often described as a woman too pretty to be an activist, who rose from the parliament of the streets, can finally sit in the highest law making body of the land.

I recall my memories interacting with her way back when she first ran in 2010. It was in Xavier University when they organized a Voter’s Ed Concert when I happily volunteered. Ever since then, my support and fascination for her grew overtime. And as I made greater effort in understanding the history and landscape of our politics, it has become clearer to me that her victory is a political breakthrough.

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In a Senate lorded by patricians, titans and celebrities, a Risa Hontiveros is an exception to the general rule we have grown tired and sadly, accustomed to. And what is even more fascinating to top this is that we just elected the first openly social democrat in the Philippine Senate.

Left-of-center politics are branded with many names in the Philippines. Some would relegate it to the extreme-armed-struggle-kind-of-left; others just box it as a group of protesters who never get contented. That is why I am doubtful if the conditions are set for progressive politics to prosper. But from the readings I made, I can fairly argue that this is the kind of politics we need in this country.

We are, as what Quimpo describes, a “contested democracy”. We have formal institutions of democracy; a regular election, a fairly free media, a court system, a law making body, a strong executive and all sorts of democratic trappings but when we remove the veil, state power is actually mired by a vast network of patronage controlled by a few elite families whose interests are far different from that of the vast majority.

This makes the elections, national and local as a sort of inter-elite competition designed to legitimize their almost feudal reign. This is the chronic age-old problem of the Philippines that has perpetuated languishing poverty especially in the countryside, fed growing inequality and embedded corruption in almost all levels of government.

So if we are to breakout to the next stage of national development, we have to confront this cancer in our public institutions politically. And that is where my hope rests in the election of Risa Hontiveros.

She does not just stand on her own name and merit. She is but part of this bigger mass movement of progressives, basic sectors and ordinary citizens who are fighting for a more democratic and inclusive society. Her background, as well as countless of her comrades has been defined by a rooted activism in the streets, in halls of power, in the communities and in the academe.

She is foremost the leader of the Akbayan Party. This is a multi-sectoral mass-based political party born out of the ashes of Martial Law and reinvigorated by the first People Power revolution. It has entered the political field after the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution as a party-list organization. Since then, they have made great strides in passing progressive legislation such as the Reproductive Health Law, the Cheaper Medicines Law and the recent SK reform Law among so many others.

Now that democratic left has a clout in the Senate, this is truly an exciting time to know and to be a progressive. My hope is that such victory would galvanize young public servants to explore, understand and appreciate the struggle of the democratic left. Her victory is a springboard to push for a unified progressive agenda and a pivot to help strengthen the mass movements in the student councils, in the countryside, in the local government units and in civil society.

At the end, what we all want is a Modern Philippine State with strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society. We have to understand that this would only work if we deepen democracy by constant and committed engagement to people in power and confronting the reality of our “neo-feudal” setup.

And a way of slowly unshackling the grip of elite domination in our politics is by voting and supporting progressives like Risa Hontiveros, Walden Bello and the parties they represent.

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Mabuhay ka Senator Risa Hontiveros!

Mabuhay ang Akbayan!

Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!

 

image from GMA Network

5 Reasons why We should vote for Ermin Pimentel #23 for CDO City Councilor

 

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  1. He has #Hugot

 

Seriously, hugot does not only apply to romantic slang, it is pretty much applicable in how we should judge politicians. Na aba ni siyay hugot? This is to contrast others who just, in one night, decide to run because they possess tons of money or hold enough network. Or in other words, they run for public office just because they can. We have been dominated by these kinds of people who just see public service as a big fat milking cow and an opportunity to protect their business interests

Kuya Ermin on the other hand has led a life that is so “hugotable”. What do I mean? He has been formed in the shadows of marital law and became socially aware of the liberating power of activism in his early years. This led him to stand with farmers against big landed corporations to the point of even risking his own life and through the years, served in various capacities within the civil society and the academe.

Who among the candidates possess this kind of personal history of standing for the people in the margins? Clearly not just lip service. This guy is the real deal.

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  1. Consistent public servant

This is one rare trait. Consistency. This is defined by the life choices we make. Is it consistent with your values and with your vision of and for the world?

Fairly enough, Kuya Ermin’s life has been defined by this insatiable drive to order society in a way where dignity and justice is paramount. Such lofty ideals you may say, but in his own way and sphere of influence, he has made great gains in this life mission.

Starting from strengthening the KKP-SIO of Xavier University which under his watch expanded its role not just in the university but in the whole region and beyond.

In the aftermath of the 2009 floods, Sendong and Yolanda, he led the university’s effort in brining aid to the victims as well as translating the experience  to institutional improvements.

In the political front, he has engaged the whole length of electoral engagement from non-partisan (NAMFREL), transpartisan (Kagayanon for Good Governance) , to partisan (Liberal Party).

Recently, he has been instrumental in creating the CDO People’s Council that would serve as a counter balance and vehicle for the people to directly influence the decision making process of the city.

These accomplishments in itself is a picture of the depth of his commitment to social progress.

This is what I see as his consistency. And to state the already obvious, he has been serving the public good way before he entered the partisan political realm. This is the kind of leadership that the city council needs.

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  1. Social Formator and Educator

 His life’s work can be best seen in the generations of leaders he has helped formed. I can say that I am fortunate to be one of them. He has driven the point to me of how participating in politics is a form of vocation. Though it is dirty and noisy, it is important and necessary. He taught me that it is a powerful means of realizing the whole point of our education and that is to do justice in faith.

And interestingly enough, he manages to communicate these ideas through what we call the “chalk talk”. He is a genius in this art. He does not need a PowerPoint. He can make you understand social concepts through arrows, drawings and lines – a mark of a true Engineer.

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  1. Housing advocate

When he got onboard in the reform agenda of the City Mayor Oscar Moreno,  he was tasked to help reform the Asset Management Office of the city particularly on the socialized housing program bearing in mind his engineering and community development background. This is a tedious job filled with political landmines and legal hurdles but together with the Piso-piso Committee, they were able to finally issue land titles to beneficiaries after decades of empty promises.

He also managed to cultivate the associations by linking the strengths of the academe and civil society to help meet the basic needs of these communities such as sanitation, health and livelihood.

This, as he refers to, is not just about housing per se, this is a fight for a basic human right and this is his #hugot.

Imagine if we have him as a legislator. Thousands of families living in the city’s socialized housing sites would have a clear and true champion.

  1. Youth Champion 

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Kuya Ermin is instrumental in the creation of the Oro Youth Development Council. In a way, the founding of this council is the culmination of the years of political education and youth mobilization we have worked together in school and in the city.

He helped us navigate in the tricky political terrain early on. He has committed to support legislation institutionalizing a youth council under the SK Reform Law Format. This is again not just a lip service because he was part of the whole process. His hugot, his background and his life’s work assure that this will be followed through.

The youth sector has an ally in him. Tried and tested.

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Let us stop voting career and parochial politicians who run because they simply can.Cagayan de Oro deserves better leaders and more importantly, we need strategic systems thinking leaders like him in a time when the city is rapidly growing.

A vote for Kuya Ermin is a vote for a progressive Cagayan de Oro

*drops mic*