MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/16 May) – With his brilliance as a lawyer, the late Frederico “Fred” Gapuz could have just chosen the path that would have brought him wealth, influence, and perhaps power. But maybe some people are cut out to take the roads less traveled by, to test the limits of situations that seem too daunting to even think of challenging with courage and the belief in the eventual triumph of humanity as the only weapons.
The Martial Law era tested Manong Fred’s mettle not only as a lawyer but also as a human rights defender. Despite having suffered torture in the hands of the military he never wavered and remained committed to his calling as an activist lawyer.
On several occasions Manong Fred would relate his experience as a political prisoner at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Patag, Cagayan de Oro. He described in detail the torture he went through. He said he was brought to the firing range where he was to be shot. Luckily, he narrated, a high-ranking military official who knew him arrived at the scene.
I first met Manong Fred in 1984, when he stood as a sponsor in the wedding of a fellow activist. He impressed me with his straightforward manner of speaking, not to mention the booming voice that seemed not to match his small frame.
Manong Fred was a father figure to the human rights lawyers in Cagayan de Oro City. Officially, he did not head the Free Legal Assistance Group chapter in the city. But then FLAG-CDO chair Oscar Musni and Edgar Cabanlas, then the chair of the local Integrated Bar of the Philippines’ Human Rights Committee, always looked up to him for advice.
An effective speaker, Manong Fred was often invited to speak in paralegal seminars and forums on the human rights situation under President Marcos and even during the succeeding administrations.
The smart trial lawyer that he was, Manong Fred managed to get an acquittal even for political prisoners facing cases that appeared hopeless based on evidence presented by the prosecution. Thus we always saw to it that he got to handle the most difficult cases brought to our office.
Moreover, Manong Fred never confined himself to the courtroom. He joined fact-finding missions to war-torn villages in Misamis Oriental. He joined us in investigating the extent of the food blockade in Claveria, which at the time was the site of several encounters between the New People’s Army and the military.
He also took a leading role in the so-called parliament of the streets. In one welgang bayan (people’s strike) in 1985, members of the defunct Philippine Constabulary arrested and briefly detained him in Camp Alagar. That incident must have brought back to mind the ordeal he went through in Camp Evangelista at the onset of Martial Law.
For all his effort, he never received any substantial financial reward apart from the token – and often delayed – allowance from FLAG. Yet like the other human rights lawyers in the city, Manong Fred knew he should not expect anything in return from us or from the clients, most of whom could only afford a sincere “thank you.”
I left Cagayan de Oro in 1996 to work for an environment group based in Malaybalay. But I knew through old friends that Manong Fred had chosen to continue battling to the end the old demons that have refused to go away.
Goodbye, Manong Fred, and thank you for inspiring us during those dark, difficult times. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno was a human rights activist during Martial Law.)