Frederico Gapuz, chair of the Union of Peoples' Lawyers in Mindanao, said, cases of human rights violations around Mindanao have increased but only 72 lawyers and 35 paralegal aides are handling these cases,
UPLM secretary-general Carlos Isagani Zarate clarified the number includes only UPLM members. He said they are still trying to get more lawyers to handle human rights cases. Zarate estimated "thousands" of lawyers in Mindanao with around 700 of them members of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines in Davao alone.
"The number (of lawyers handling cases of human rights violations) is not enough but we are surviving with hard work, courage, and pride," Gapuz said. Gapuz and other members of the UPLM attended the Third Congress of the International Association of Peoples Lawyers here.
The human rights group Karapatan says more than 750 militants have been killed nationwide since Arroyo came to power five years ago. The government's Task Force Usig, which lawyers accused as a "whitewashing machine" counts only 111 killings.
The Task Force said that of the number, seven were results of "legitimate operations" against the New People's Army and five as offshoots of land disputes.
Gapuz did not give exact figures but said Mindanao has always been the source of resistance that is why it is also home to a big number of human rights violations. Zarate said a third of the Karapatan estimate of violations was traced to Mindanao. But Zarate stressed that a bigger number of the human rights violations are undocumented.
Gapuz said political repression has remained the most dominant area of violations amid government pursuit of the New Peoples Army (NPA).
Gapuz also cited alleged political harassment to have increased in Mindanao since President Arroyo was accused to have cheated the elections in Mindanao.
Gapuz said the government’s anti-terrorism campaign has also made it more difficult to work against human rights violations as government, he said, is more prone to violating human rights in the guise of pursuing suspected terrorists. "That has become more difficult for us," he said.
Zarate said half of the manpower of the Armed Forces of the Philippines is in Mindanao and American troops are also stationed here.
Gapuz said they are winning in some fronts such as in the dismissal of cases filed for rebellion but they continue to lose in cases against big corporations including those resulting from labor conflicts, land grabbing and illegal conversion of lands.
He said they gained support from their ranks when they organized into the UPLM last year.
IAPL has admitted UPLM members into its international network of lawyers.
Gapuz said their membership to IAPL could enhance their reach and resources especially in the international community. Gapuz said international pressure has become a stronger force that could possibly help curb violations by the government.
Lawyer Hakan Karakus of Turkey, IAPL president, told MindaNews UPLM members' network with the international partners could also help bring more attention to the worsening cases of human rights violations in Mindanao. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)