‘Fearless lawyer’ for Lumad, farmers and environment shot dead in South Cotabato

Sep. 17, 2021

DAVAO CITY – Condemnation and grief poured after the death of another human rights lawyer, Juan Macababad, who was killed by unidentified assailants outside his home in Surallah, South Cotabato, on September 14 Wednesday afternoon.

Macababad, Vice Chairperson of the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) and chairperson of its regional chapter in Socsksargen, succumbed to five gunshot wounds, according to Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate, making him the 58th laywer killed under the Duterte administration.

UPLM in their statement condemned the killing, saying this is connected to his involvement in human rights lawyering for decades in the region. The group said Macababad has been receiving death threats prior to his murder.

“The climate of impunity pervades with the lack of serious investigation and prosecution over thousands of extrajudicial killings in the country. The legal profession is not spared, and our colleagues have become main targets especially those who resist tyranny and defend human rights,” said Atty. Antonio C. Azarcon, UPLM chairperson.

Caring for clients and colleagues

Macababad started his human rights lawyering in the 1990s as legal counsel of the Social Action Center for the Catholic Diocese of Marbel. One of his early cases involved an indigenous leader who was reported missing in Koronadal.

A paralegal who worked with Macababad before, who requested anonymity in this interview, recalled Macababad never held back in extending legal help for the indigenous peoples and farmers not only in South Cotabato but also in the Socksargen Region.

“Sa akong mahinumduman panahon pa sa 1990’s naa na siya gyud naga hatag og assistance ilabina kadtong naay mga kaso sa mga lumad ug mag‒uuma bisan walay bayad. Sa una wala pay cellphone, pero kung kinahanglan ang iyang tabang naa dayon siya,” said his colleague on a phone interview.

(I remember way back in the 1990s he was already there giving assistance especially to cases involving the lumad and farmers, and he would never ask for a fee. There was no cellphone back then, but when you need his help he would come right away.)

A Karapatan volunteer said Macababad showed concern not only on the cases they handled, but also for their welfare.

Macababad would always remind them to take caution and take security measures because of the risks involved in human rights work in the past decades.

“Kung amoa syang duolan para magpatabang mi sa mga kaso nga among ginagunit dali ra kaayo maapproach basta dili sya busy. Makasabot dayon siya nga kinahanglan ang iyang tabang. Ang dili sab namo malimtan niya kay manglibre gyud na siya namo basta magkita mi kay kabalo siya nga wala mi mga kwarta,” said one volunteer.

(When we reach out to him for help for the cases we handled, he’s very approachable especially when he’s not busy. He knew his help is needed. We would never forget how he would also treat us for lunch every time we approach him because he knew we always run short of money.)

Protector of Lumad and farmers

Macababad has handled high profile cases including the charges of rebellion and arson against members of South Cotabato Farmers Association and Bayan Muna, and a similar case involving cooperative farmers and activists in Sultan Kudarat.

He also extended legal help to progressive leaders and farmers who faced lawsuits after leading a barricade of hundreds of farmers affected by El Niňo at the national highway in Koronadal City asking assistance to the local government.

When eight Tboli-Manobos in Barangay Ned, Lake Sebu were killed last December 2017 and claimed by the military as rebels, Macababad gave legal assistance to the community. He even joined the lumad in their return to their village to ensure their safety.

A colleague remembered Macababad even joined the lumad in their return to their village to ensure their safety.

“Gani, hangtud sa pagpauli sa mga lumad sa ilang kumunidad, niuban pa siya sa paghatud aron nga masure nga luwas nga maka uli sila sa ilang mga balay,” she said.

(Even when the Lumad returned to their community, he went with them to make sure they all return safely to their homes.)

Macababad intervened to help the release of five foreign missionaries who were held by authorities in May 2018 on a fact finding mission related to the Lake Sebu massacre.

Environment cases

Macababad also became active in environment cases when he joined the campaign against aerial spraying in Allah Valley in South Cotabato in 2015.

He joined the human barricade to oppose the aerial spray activities of the multinational company Sumitomo Fruits (Sumifru) which resulted in a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) case against him and others who joined the mass action.

The Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC) remember him as a “fearless champion of human rights”. In their statement, they remember Macababad worked with them in various campaigns including the opposition against the coal mining application of the company David M. Consungji, Inc. (DCMI) in South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.

“LRC had worked with Atty. Mac and remember him to be a fearless champion of human rights, especially the rights of indigenous peoples and farmers. He was the first lawyer to visit a remote indigenous community in South Cotabato to learn of their plight. LRC condemns in the strongest possible terms the killing of Atty. Mac,” the statement said.

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