Lawyer Federico Gapuz. ( photo by Barry Ohaylan)
At 72, Federico Gapuz does not look like a swashbuckling lawyer with a 10-gallon Stetson hat. But make no mistake: he does not seem to have passed his prime either. Gapuz remains among the few, brave men of the legal profession who wouldnt hesitate to come to the rescue of people prosecuted and persecuted — for their political beliefs. Davao Today managing editor Cheryll D. Fiel recently had the chance to chat with this peoples lawyer.

DAVAO CITY — Federico Gapuz, a lawyer from Cagayan de Oro, is the chairman of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) that was established last year to take on the legal cases of the poor, the dispossessed, those who suffered the brutality of the state, and are too poor to defend themselves.

At 72, Gapuz does not look like a swashbuckling lawyer with a 10-gallon Stetson hat. But make no mistake: he does not seem to have passed his prime either. To this day, decades after he began a colorful, not to mention brave, law practice while a dictator was preparing to put the entire country under his clutches, Gapuz remains among the few, brave men of the legal profession who wouldnt hesitate to come to the rescue of people prosecuted and persecuted — for their political beliefs.

He has gone through so many hardships as a result of his pro-people practice, among them torture, arrests (not once but seven times!), and physical abuse, including one instance in 1985 when he was nabbed by the military and thrown into a Tamaraw van after he was caught transporting strikers.

He said his blood boils when he senses oppression and exploitation. This outrage, he said, traces back to the days when he was still an aspiring lawyer, at a time when Filipino nationalists were fighting the American Parity Rights and the US bases. He admires Claro M. Recto the most and credits the late nationalist senator for the political awakenings that remain to this day.

Gapuz became a lawyer just as Ferdinand Marcos was creeping into Malacanang. “I never voted for him, he said in a recent interview with I said then, Soon, we will have a martial law.”

When Marcos was cooking up martial law in the early 70s, Gapuz had just joined the Movement for Civil Liberties and eventually became the chairman of its chapter in Cagayan de Oro City and Misamis Oriental.

When student activists unleashed what has come to be known as the First Quarter Storm, a watershed in Philippine political protest, Gapuz was already prepared to defend young activists from the ire of the dictatorship.

In a recent interview with Davao Today, Gapuz shares his insights into peoples lawyering.

Davao Today: What are the differences between your political clients, then and now?

Gapuz: It’s probably the causes, the reasons why they were activists. But the passion and the oppression is still there.

Davao Today: And which do you think is a graver situation?

Gapuz: I would say this is graver because it’s very insidious. She (President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) uses laws that give soldiers and police the blanket authority to determine who the enemies of the state are. They are being taught this: If they are anti-Gloria, they are enemies of the state. Marcos, at least, had the bravery to declare that habeas corpus was suspended.

Davao Today: Do we have a chance if we go to court and challenge these presidential orders?

Gapuz: I’m hoping we have. That’s why there are cases we have taken to the Supreme Court. But as I said, I’m worried because of the present composition of the Supreme court. She has appointed 10. If this continues, I see more darkness. I see more suffering. Gloria has just so entrenched herself in power. She has the army, the police with her aside from the Department of Justice.

Davao Today: Can lawyers do something?

Gapuz: As lawyers, we must not always stay in our law offices and go to court. We have to go out and be with the people, to explain to them these issues so that they will know and stand up for their rights, because as I said, as I always say, 48 years ago, I was handling cases like this, and up to now, nothing has changed.

Davao Today: What’s the situation of lawyers defending so-called enemies of the state and activists?

Well, we have to have to earn also. I, for example, when I go to trial, I just make it a point that a minimum of two days is set aside for these cases, aside from consultations. I have only three days for earning money. And since these cases are all pro bono, we finance the needs ourselves. For example, I’m based in Cagayan de Oro. The case happens in Gingoog, 125 kilometers away, and we have clients in jail. So to look for the witnesses, we lawyers have to look for them. Unless there are relatives, who can work to get the witness, we have to do it ourselves.

If they are detained, you have to give special attention to them. As much as possible, you hold trials as early as possible. If you have the chance to acquit, you should always go to trial. These people are languishing in jail.

Aside from this, attending to other cases of public interest, like for example mining, the ancestral domain of our tribal Filipinos. When they (Lumads) come, we could not turn our backs on them. You see, we have a sworn duty. At least in UPLM, that’s our pledge.

Davao Today: Are there enough lawyers that activists can rely on?

Gapuz: No, not really. For example, on my own, I have no less than 11 cases related to political repression, all pro bono. It’s a case of survival of the fittest. Some of our members even have to deal with death threats now in the course of doing their work.

Davao Today: Is this the reason why there are only a few lawyers like you?

Gapuz: Well, that’s one of the reasons. We are trying to draw young lawyers but really we cannot impose on them. They also have to earn. We could ask them only a portion of their time. It’s unlike the group of lawyers during martial law. FLAG (Free Legal Assistance Group), for instance, was able to get some funds.

Davao Today: So what do you do in case you run out of funds?

Gapuz: There’s nothing you can do but just keep going. You work with what you have. You borrow money and if you cannot borrow, you just have to grin and bear it.

Davao Today: Aside from the problem on finances, aren’t you also worried that this type of practice could make you a target?

Gapuz: During the old time of the Marcos years, I was a target already. I have tasted torture, I have tasted imprisonment. We just have to be ready.

Davao Today: Do you see this happening, a return of what happened in 1985 when lawyers from Column (Concerned Lawyers Union of Mindanao, a Mindanao-wide group of lawyers in the 80s) were arrested?

It can happen anytime. Gloria is more ruthless than Marcos.

Davao Today: Who do you think are going to defend the defenders?

Gapuz: Ourselves.

Davao Today: Are you counting on the people’s movement to defend the defenders?

I hope. It’s all that we have. (Cheryll D. Fiel/

comments powered by Disqus