MANILA – Eighteen more fishermen have opted to withdraw a writ of kalikasan petition before the Supreme Court, based on a filing by their counsel the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) on Wednesday.
In its submission to the high court, the IBP said its lawyers were able to talk to 2 more fisherfolk from Zambales and 1 from Puerto Princesa, Palawan in person, while they managed to contact 14 other fishermen from Pag-asa Island through the Facebook Messenger app.
All 17 plus another fisherman signified their intent to withdraw the petition, which sought to compel government agencies to protect marine life in the West Philippine Sea by enforcing Philippine laws.
In total, all 3 of the petitioners from Zambales, 22 from Palawan and the IBP itself have chosen to withdraw the petition for the protection of the country's exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea.
There were 41 petitioners named in the plea but the rest, according to IBP lawyers, were not able to sign the verification page.
The IBP’s writ of kalikasan petition, a novel approach to addressing the alleged destruction of the environment in the West Philippine Sea by Chinese-flagged vessels, began to fall apart when Solicitor General Jose Calida told High Court magistrates during oral arguments on July 9 that his office had obtained affidavits from 19 of the petitioners disavowing the petition. He accused the IBP of deceiving its clients.
Despite objections from the IBP lawyers and collaborating counsel Chel Diokno about the Solicitor General's alleged breach of legal ethics in communicating with the opposing party’s clients without the knowledge of their lawyers, the Court allowed Calida to submit the affidavits and required the IBP to coordinate with its clients on how to proceed with the case.
On July 19, the IBP filed a motion withdrawing the case on its behalf and on behalf of 7 fisherfolk. It also asked the high court to allow its lawyers to withdraw as counsel for the remaining 20 petitioners.
Not satisfied with the motion, the Supreme Court required the IBP to exert more efforts to reach their clients, provide proof that the 20 remaining petitioners actually knew about the contents of the petition and justify why the Court should allow the IBP to withdraw and leave the remaining petitioners unrepresented.
The IBP, in its filing Wednesday, attached letters from 18 of the 20 remaining petitioners.
Zambales-based petitioners Rolando Labandelo and Nilo Labrador both wrote the IBP: “Pakiurong n'yo ang kaso namin Abogado vs. DENR (Please withdraw our case Abogado vs. DENR),” in a letter dated Aug. 4 attached to IBP’s filing.
Meanwhile, 15 Palawan-based petitioners signed a letter dated Aug. 5 saying “[s]umasang-ayon kami sa pag-atras ng kaso namin (Abogado vs. DENR) [We agree to withdraw our case (Abogado vs. DENR)].”
Another Palawan-based petitioner, Ricardo Natural, added his signature to the July 15 letter signed by 6 of his co-petitioners withdrawing the SC case, which had earlier been submitted by the IBP to the high tribunal.
The IBP asked the high court to allow its withdrawal as counsel for petitioners despite not being able to reach the 2 remaining petitioners.
It also asked the court to give it until Friday, Aug. 16, to submit the letter from the officers of the Kalayaan Palawan Farmers and Fisherfolk Association and an affidavit from former IBP Zambales president Josefina Ela Bueno detailing the circumstances surrounding the filing of the petition.
The IBP had maintained during oral arguments that its lawyers in the Zambales and Palawan chapters were the ones in direct contact with the petitioners, but Associate Justice Marvic Leonen told IBP’s lawyers present during the oral arguments that it was their responsibility to talk to all their clients and show them the petition.
Calida had earlier claimed the parties have agreed to dismiss the petition right after the July 9 oral arguments. But the IBP first consulted its clients before it filed any motion in court.
Two Palawan fishermen told ABS-CBN News last month it was the Philippine Navy who approached them to execute affidavits and statements denying any knowledge about the petition, contrary to Calida’s claim during the oral arguments that it was the fishermen who approached the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
The SC has been silent so far on the IBP’s claim of breach of legal ethics against the OSG and respondent government agencies.