Chel Diokno unfazed over disbarment raps threat in writ of kalikasan petition

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 16) — Rights lawyer Jose Manuel "Chel" Diokno said Tuesday he is unfazed over a possible disbarment case for supposed "misrepresentation" of fishermen in a case on the West Philippine Sea.

"Bilang abogado na matagal nang tumutulong sa mga mahihirap, sanay na ako sa mga pagbabanta at pananakot mula sa bibig ng mga may kapangyarihan. Hindi na bago 'yan," Diokno said Tuesday in a statement first sent to CNN Philippines.

[Translation: As a lawyer who helps the poor, I'm used to receiving threats and intimidation from the mouths of those who are in power. That's not new.]

Diokno leads a legal team representing fishermen in a petition before the Supreme Court (SC) which seeks to order the government to protect features in the West Philippine Sea. Solicitor General Jose Calida floated the possibility of him and other Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) lawyers getting disbarred for supposed "misrepresentation."

Diokno, founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law, said he will continue to fight for justice, just as his father did during the Marcos martial law years.

Calida told CNN Philippines' The Source on Monday that Diokno, along with former and incumbent IBP presidents, may face disbarment raps for supposedly misrepresenting the writ of kalikasan case to the fishermen. The government's top lawyer said fishermen were clueless that they were actually suing the state — an allegation denied by Diokno.

Calida said the fishermen's discovery of the true nature of the case — supposedly through the news — prompted them to seek help from the Philippine Navy, which led them to a certain Captain Angare, the legal officer of the Naval Forces West Palawan.

This eventually led to their withdrawal from the writ of kalikasan petition, which was only announced by Calida during oral arguments last week.

'Angare should've told IBP lawyers'

Former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, one of the consultants in the case, told CNN Philippines' The Source that Angare had an ethical obligation to inform IBP lawyers that the fishermen already want out of the case.

“If [the fishermen] really did not want anymore to be part of the petition, or they did not want to be part of the petition in the first place and the Navy lawyer finds about it, the ethical obligation is to tell the IBP, not to take action,” Te said Tuesday.

About half of the 40 fishermen who filed the writ of kalikasan petition backed out of the case after finding out that they were actually suing the government — a fact that they were supposedly kept in the dark about.

In a video shown to the SC during the oral arguments last week, some of the fishermen were seen speaking with Angare, telling her that they did not want to push through with the case.

But Te sees conflict of interest in this, as the Navy is a respondent in the petition.

“At the very least, ‘yung [the] lawyer had the duty to say, ‘Look, I’m in a conflict of interest position here. Hindi ako mismo [Not myself,] but my institution is a respondent here. Hindi kita pwedeng kausapin [I cannot talk to you,]” he said.

But this did not happen. Instead, Calida unleashed the affidavits of 19 fishermen and the video before the SC, disrupting the oral arguments.

However, Te said even a bombshell like this could have been averted.

“There was one week intervening before the session, SolGen could have called him up. Boss, usap tayo. Anong gagawin natin dito? Simpleng-simple [Boss, let’s talk. What do we do with this. It’s so simple,]” he said.

A writ of kalikasan is a legal remedy available to any person who feels that their constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology has been violated or could be violated by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or private individual or entity.

In this case, the fishermen asked the SC to compel the government to preserve, restore, and rehabilitate Panatag Shoal, Ayungin Shoal, and Panganiban Reef, which they said have all been heavily damaged by China's artificial island-building activities.

These three sea features are all part of the West Philippine Sea, a part of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and contested by China.

In 2016, an international arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea and backed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims over virtually the entire South China Sea and ruled that the Asian giant violated the Philippines’ exclusive rights over features in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.