Legal community and human rights activists demand justice after murder of fifth judge under Duterte’s watch.
Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines - May 9 was a typical busy day for Judge Reymar Lacaya. He had 17 trials scheduled to hear that Thursday, so he left early for the courthouse, more than an hour’s drive from his main office. Before heading to work, he rang his daughter to tell her to be safe, and that they would see each other on the weekend when they were both at home.
By mid-afternoon, the 61-year-old jurist had wrapped up all the cases in the docket. It was time to drive back to his base in a neighbouring town in this province in Mindanao. As he walked to his pick-up truck, an assassin struck.
One bullet pierced the judge’s back. Then another, fired at close range, hit the base of his skull. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a local clinic.
The gunman had stalked the judge from an empty building nearby, cutting through a screen in a window to get a clearer view of what was outside. Following the attack, he fled on foot, but not without leaving possible traces of DNA evidence. He also left a hole in the barb wire fence separating the court compound and a grassy hillside.
With his death, Lacaya became the fifth judge killed since President Rodrigo Duterte came into office in 2016, and the 30th since 1999. He was also the 38th lawyer killed in the last three years. Two more lawyers were killed in separate incidents on May 17.
Critics said that despite placing the whole of Mindanao under martial law since 2017, Duterte has failed to prevent deadly incidents in the restive southern Philippine island.
Moreover, they said Duterte’s war against drugs, which according to some estimates has already killed 27,000 people, perpetuated an atmosphere of violence and further weakened the rule of law in the country.
“Judges, prosecutors, and lawyers remain vulnerable in the climate of impunity that reigns in the Philippines,” Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch told TRT World.
“This [murder] is concerning because the judiciary and the criminal justice system are hard put, as it is, to ensure the delivery of justice. Attacking them undermines the justice system even further.
“Judge Lacaya’s killing underscores the need for accountability for these murders. Unless perpetrators are brought to justice, these violations of human rights will continue.”
Investigators have not released details of Lacaya’s death, and police say it is still under investigation.
Lacaya’s murder must be investigated thoroughly
Sources, however, told TRT World that the murder could be related to the cases he was handling at the town, where he was temporarily assigned. They said Lacaya may have been targeted after reversing some court decisions, and re-issue arrest warrants against suspects on supposed non-bailable criminal offences. Recent cases he handled include murder, robbery and drug trading.
“All the more that Lacaya’s murder must be investigated thoroughly,” Conde of Human Rights Watch said.
Senen Angeles, vice governor of Zamboanga del Norte province and a former judge, said he cried when he heard the news of Lacaya’s murder.
Just a week before Lacaya’s death, the two long-time friends had a long conversation when their respective families ran into each other at a grocery store in the provincial capital, Dipolog City.
"It’s really lamentable to know that he succumbed to death just outside the courtroom. So, I am with the people calling for swift justice for the death of Judge Lacaya,” he told TRT World.
Angeles said that Lacaya was “really sincere and serious" in his job, and that he is a “great loss” to the legal profession.
From court employees to family members, Lacaya has been described as down to earth and with a great sense of humour.
Lotis S. Paburada, who once served as a legal researcher in court for Lacaya, said he always treated his staff fairly “with no air of superiority.”
'His death is really so painful for me'
When he was first appointed as judge, Lacaya would take the bus every day at 5am to make it to work on time at 8am. He did this for years until he turned 60, when he bought his pickup truck, and started driving, his daughter, Joy, recalled.
One time during his daily commute to work, a fellow passenger scolded Lacaya for taking his seat, recalled a fellow judge, who is also close friend. Lacaya just quietly moved and took another seat, instead of making a big fuss about the situation.
“His death is really so painful for me,” Judge Rogelio Laquijon told TRT World. They had been best friends since law school and passed their bar examinations the same year.
“He had no enemy and was never known to be corrupt, or someone who would demand bribes. So of all people, why him?” He said. “I am really hoping that the authorities will solve his murder quickly.” He also lamented about how judges are now being targeted while in the line of duty.
The slain judge’s daughter, Joy, said her father sacrificed “a lot” to do his job right.
“You cannot question his dedication and service to the government,” she told TRT World, adding that even during weekends, he would spend time to study and review the cases he handled.
“He would rarely take a leave of absence, because he said there is always work to be done,” she said. “His routine was just home, church, grocery shopping, and work.”
Rosevic Lacaya, an older sister of the judge, said that she never expected that her brother would be killed in the line of work. But she said that in the days leading to her brother’s death, she had a “very vivid dream” of someone getting stabbed in the head with a knife.
Although Lacaya was not mentioned in Duterte’s “narco list”, the Philippine president has identified dozens of politicians, police officers, lawyers and judges, whom he accused of involvement in the drug trade.
In October 2018, another judge from Mindanao, who was handling a high-profile case against a political family, was also murdered. Another was killed in June 2018, while two others were killed in 2017. As of May 20, 40 lawyers have also been killed, in addition to the five judges.
In March 2019, drug enforcers claimed that 13 judges and 10 prosecutors were on their drug list.
In a statement following Lacaya’s death, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin called for the immediate arrest of the perpetrator.
"The entire Judiciary condemns in the strongest possible terms the killing of Judge Lacaya," Bersamin said.
Lacaya was buried on Saturday May 18 in Dipolog City.