MANILA – Some of the fishermen included as petitioners in a plea before the Supreme Court for the protection of the West Philippine Sea marine environment have accused lawyers from the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) of deception, affidavits obtained by ABS-CBN News Wednesday showed.
These affidavits were the same ones Solicitor General Jose Calida submitted to the Supreme Court Tuesday, claiming that 19 fishermen - or almost half of the 41 petitioners - have disowned the writ of kalikasan petition. Calida’s revelation prompted the high court to suspend oral arguments.
ABS-CBN News obtained copies of statements from 22 fishermen: 20 from Barangay Pag-asa in Kalayaan, Palawan and 2 from Zambales.
Four of the statements were handwritten while of the statements from 18 fishermen that were typewritten, 4 were notarized in Puerto Princesa and 12 were signed in Barangay Pag-asa. Two other fishermen executed a joint affidavit notarized in Zambales.
Wilfredo Labandelo and Nilo Labrador, in their statements, claimed that they and 30 other fishermen approached IBP Zambales in February 2019 to ask for help regarding the closure of a school and their displacement from their residence in Sitio Kinabuksan.
They claimed the IBP local chapter promised to help them. They were asked for copies of their identification cards and were made to sign on an empty piece of paper bearing only their names.
“Pinapatunayan namin na walang ibang nilalaman ang papel na pinirmahan namin kundi tanging mga pangalan lang ni Wilfredo Labandelo, Nilo Labrador, at Rolando Labandelo,” they said.
(We are attesting to the fact that the piece of paper that was signed had no content other than the names of Wilfredo Labandelo, Nilo Labrador, and Rolando Labandelo.)
“Ayun sa aming nakausap sa IBP Zambales Chapter, sila na raw ang bahalang maglagay ng nilalaman nito,” they added.
(According to the IBP Zambales Chapter, they will be the ones to fill it.)
In April 2019, they said they were asked to go to the IBP office in Ortigas where they were shown a copy of the petition but, because it was lengthy, they said they did not have time to read it.
Despite their request, they said they were also not given a copy of the petition and were surprised to learn in the news that the petition had something to do with the West Philippine Sea.
They said they approached the IBP without any intention of filing a petition against government agencies including the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, and the Philippine Coast Guard.
"Wala rin po nabanggit sa amin sa kahit anumang pagkakataon na magsasampa kami kasama ng IBP ng anumang kaso sa mga nasabing ahensya,” they added.
(They also never mentioned to us at any instance that we will be filing a petition along with the IBP against the said agencies.)
Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, IBP’s collaborating counsel in the petition, told the Supreme Court Tuesday that he met with 3 petitioners from Zambales at the IBP office and they appeared to have understood the petition and were willing petitioners.
Of the 20 fishermen from Palawan who signed statements, 18 said they had no knowledge about the petition and insisted they did not sign it either.
One of them recalled being instructed to send a sealed envelope to Barangay Pag-asa while another said he was told to circulate 2 pages for signature by their members, which he thought was intended for benefit claims from the government.
In similar language, most of the fishermen said they would not have joined the petition had they known from the start that it would be a case against the BFAR, the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard, all of whom, they said, have helped them in their livelihood.
Only Roberto Asiado, president of the Kalayaan Palawan Farmers and Fisherfolk Association, and another member, Monico Abogado, claimed to have knowledge about a petition but it was supposedly against foreign fishermen illegally fishing in the Kalayaaan group of islands.
Both said they met with a certain lawyer Ann Fatima Chavez, who told them the petition was intended to protect marine resources in their area.
In his affidavit executed on June 28, Abogado said he did not sign any petition, although in a joint statement which he earlier executed with Asiado on May 29, both said they informed their members about the petition.
“Pagkatapos ng pag-uusap na iyon, ipinabatid namin sa aming mga kasamahan na may pipirmahan sila at suportahan namin ito dahil ang buong akala naman namin baka may donasyon o benepisyo para sa aming mga mangingisda at kasamahang magsasaka,” they said.
(After our discussion, we told our fellow fishermen that they were going to sign something and that we should support it because we thought it was for a donation or benefits for us fishermen and farmers.)
Asiado also confirmed he personally delivered a copy of the signed petition to Chavez’s law office in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. He, however, noted that he did not read anything about a case against BFAR, the Navy, the Coast Guard or any other government agency.
Asiado said he was surprised the petition turned out to be different from what Chavez had explained to him.
“Ito po ay madiin kong pinapasinungalingan. Di po katanggap-tanggap sa akin na mismong BFAR, Philippine Navy at Philippine Coast Guard na siyang katuwang namin sa Pag-Asa ay kakasuhan namin ngayon. Wala kaming alam dito at di namin suportado ang inihaing petisyon laban sa mga ahensyang ito,” he said.
(I am vehemently denying this. I cannot accept that we are impleading BFAR, the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard who have been our partners in Pag-Asa. We have no knowledge about this and we do not support the petition filed against these agencies.)
“Parang niloko po kami ni Atty. Chavez sa lagay na ito. Maganda po ang samahan namin ng BFAR, Philippine Navy at Philippine Coast Guard pero tila sinisira kami laban sa isa’t isa,” he added.
(It was like Atty. Chavez deceived us. We have a good relationship with BFAR, the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast but it's as if they are pitting us against each other.)
During oral arguments Tuesday, petitioners’ counsels admitted they have not talked to fishermen from Palawan as they relied on members of the IBP local chapter who supposedly talked to them.
GOVERNMENT HAND IN WITHDRAWAL?
Diokno on Wednesday claimed the government may be behind the fishermen’s move to disown the petition.
He had raised concerns during Tuesday’s oral arguments as to how the Office of the Solicitor General obtained the affidavits of the fishermen, saying contacting the clients of the opposing party without the knowledge of their lawyers violated legal ethics.
“[P]agkatapos ‘makausap’ ng abogado ng Navy, umatras na daw ang mga mangingisda. Hindi raw kanila ang kaso,” he said.
(After the Navy's counsel spoke to them, the fishermen allegedly withdrew. They have allegedly disowned the case.)
“Hindi lang kahina-hinala na patagong nakipag-usap ang gobyerno sa mga kliyente namin, labag din sa legal ethics yan. Mukhang na-Recto 22 na naman ang mga Pilipino,” he added, referring to the Filipino fishermen whose boat a Chinese vessel sank near the Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea on June 9.
(Government's secret discussion with our clients was not just suspicious, it's against legal ethics. I think what happened to the Recto 22 happened again.)
The fishermen were initially firm that their boat was rammed but, after a meeting with then Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, they later said they were no longer sure.
Calida had earlier said it was the fishermen from Barangay Pag-asa who approached the BFAR in Puerto Princesa, who in turn provided the OSG with the fishermen’s affidavit. He also showed the Supreme Court a video of the meeting.
From the statements of the fishermen, it was not clear how they executed the affidavits except for a statement from Abogado that he supposedly learned from the Philippine Navy about the petition.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen during the oral arguments Tuesday noted the seriousness of the allegation of interference in lawyer-client privilege and has required the OSG to submit affidavits of the ones who prepared the fishermen’s affidavits.
He also required local IBP officers who helped prepare the petition to submit their affidavits.
ABS-CBN News tried to get the side of the IBP and its lawyers but has yet to receive a response to our request for comment as of this writing.
In the petition, the IBP along with fishermen who supposedly signed on cited “massive destruction” in the waters allegedly due to Chinese fishing vessels.
China has expansive claims to the South China Sea, encroaching into the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the contested waters.
Filipino fishermen have reported being shooed away from traditional fishing grounds at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales and said the Chinese have been harvesting giant clams in the area.