Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo on Thursday said human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) manipulated a group of fishermen into petitioning for an environmental protection order from the Supreme Court.
Panelo was reacting to Diokno’s accusation on Wednesday that state lawyers used underhanded tactics by talking secretly to his clients, who then disavowed the petition filed in their behalf by the IBP in April.
“I think it’s the other way around,” Panelo told reporters. “He should ask himself in the mirror because that questions applies to him.”
“If we are to believe the accusations of the fishermen, it’s them (Diokno and IBP) that influenced or manipulated them,” he said.
The IBP’s petition for a writ of kalikasan, a special court order for environmental protection, covers three Philippine reefs in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It claims the marine environment in and around these reefs has been destroyed by China through reclamation and poaching.
It sought to compel the government to enforce the 2016 arbitral court ruling against China’s claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
Panelo said the fishermen had sought Diokno’s help “because their houses were being demolished and they have a problem, not in regard to that [petition].”
“And then they were asked to sign documents, which turned out to be the petition. That was the story of the fishermen,” he said.
Breach of legal ethics
Diokno, a strong rights advocate who ran on the opposition ticket in last May’s midterm polls, on Wednesday said it was “not only suspicious that the government secretly talked to our clients, that also violates legal ethics.”
He said it was a lawyer from the Philippine Navy who talked to the fishermen.
“If there was a breach of legal ethics in this case, it was the fact that the Navy lawyer bypassed the fisherfolks’ lawyers,” Diokno said in a statement on Thursday in response to Panelo’s accusations against him and the IBP.
“The IBP team, and myself as collaborating counsel, acted in good faith. All we want is to help these fisherfolk, our country men, to ensure their legal right to fish in our own waters without fear or intimidation. This is the premise of the writ of kalikasan petition,” he said, adding that it was what the government should do if it truly cared for its citizens.
“Mr. Panelo, enough of politicking. Have pity on our fishermen. Protect and serve your fellow Filipinos,” Diokno said.
According to Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, Diokno could file a case to discipline or seek the disbarment of the government lawyer who had committed ethical violations.
“If he knows the identity of these people who he thinks violated some code of personal conduct of lawyers, he knows what to do,” Pimentel said at Kapihan sa Senado forum.
During a hearing on the petition on Tuesday, Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the high court to dismiss the case outright because of the fishermen’s statements.
He presented their sworn statements and showed in court a taped interview of the group’s leaders, Monico Abogado and Roberto Asiado, who claimed they were “deceived” into signing the petition.
Diokno, however, insisted that three of the fishermen told him they willingly agreed to act as petitioners.
Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin suspended Tuesday’s proceedings and called all the lawyers to a conference. Associate Justice Marvic Leonen later announced that the court unanimously decided to suspend the rest of the proceedings and give both parties time to file a joint motion.
Ways to protect EEZ
Panelo said there were other ways to protect the country’s marine resources within its EEZ in the South China Sea, apart from going to court.
“You could guard it through the Coast Guard. Let’s have more forces there to take care of the Filipinos there. And we will still go back to the issue of diplomatic negotiations,” Panelo said.
He pointed out that President Duterte has opted for diplomatic negotiations with China, which was “in possession” of the South China Sea.
Mr. Duterte has repeatedly defended his decision to pursue friendly ties with China and not directly confront it over the South China Sea dispute.
He has said he would not risk the lives of Filipinos in a war against China. —WITH A REPORT FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA
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