Musni is originally from the island of Mindanao where she works as a lawyer and a defender of human rights. In her country, her work and activism are branded as terrorist acts:
“When you defend indigenous peoples, when you defend farmers, when you call for an end to armed conflict, when you call for peace talks, when you ask for responsibilities, when you ask for basic rights, you are labelled as a member of an organization that the government has categorised as a terrorist group through the red labelling process.” Czarina has been tagged in this way and she is aware that her life is in danger.
This lawyer and activist focuses her work on defending the most vulnerable: she accompanies local indigenous communities in defending their lands against companies involved in extractive industries. These communities are opposed to the interests of companies and those of the government.
She is part of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), and its Mindanao-affiliated organization, Union People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), a body in which she holds the position of general secretary.
Both entities provide free legal services to victims of human rights violations. Musni is also part of Karapatan, a national alliance that works for the promotion and protection of rights in the marginalized and oppressed sectors of Philippine society.
According to the 2020 Human Rights Council report on the Philippines, there are huge barriers to accessing justice in the Philippines, and as such the work of NUPL is essential, especially for minorities and marginalized groups.
She has received threats, persecution and harassment due to her work as a defence lawyer, and her involvement with the indigenous community; and she has been in the crosshairs of the army, police and hired assassins. She has been forced to leave the country as a result of this situation.
In September 2020 she received 3 months of international protection in the Netherlands, through the organization Justice and Peace, however her return to the Philippines at the end of December was not viable due to the high risk situation which human rights defenders in the Philippines, especially lawyers still, encounter there.
> A UN Human Rights Council resolution has called on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide a detailed report on the human rights situation in the Philippines. What should be included in this report?
We welcome the United Nations resolution to investigate the rampant, numerous killings that are taking place in the Philippines, as well as the incidents of extrajudicial murders of activists, peasant leaders, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders. This would show the world how the regime uses brute force, power and influence to silence its detractors.
Putting the political and economic situation in context before and during the Duterte administration is essential in order to understand what is truly happening. With regard to the War on Drugs, one needs to be aware that the victims are street vendors, those who sell packages of drugs in small quantities and who come from the poorest of the poor. Drug lords, suppliers and financiers are never caught. It is therefore, a de facto war against poor Filipinos.
The report should also make clear why there are activists and what they are campaigning for. For example, why are peasants and indigenous peoples taking to the streets and protesting in front of government agencies and private companies? Why are farmers being deprived of land by multinational agricultural enterprises? Why are indigenous peoples seeking to exercise their rights to self-determination in their ancestral domains and protecting them from developmental aggressions, such as mining, dams, ecotourism, and corporate plantations? Why are workers coming together to seek a general wage increase and humane working conditions?
> Your activism is everywhere
It’s impossible for it not to be everywhere, taking the context into account. I believe that indigenous peoples should be respected for exercising their right to self-determination, and that they should not be killed if they say no to a mining project; that the poor of the cities receive adequate shelter and that young people receive affordable housing and quality education. If we really want to protect the environment, we must stand up for the people who stand up for the mountains, don’t you think?
> Do they attack you, the lawyers directly?
Yes. And we have the figures for this. In a report we made on 23 April for the Supreme Court of the Philippines on attacks on lawyers, prosecutors and judges, we recorded at least 176 prima facie attacks between January of 2011 and 22 April 2021 that were related to our profession or work and made against lawyers and judges. During this period there were at least 73 murders and 104 incidents related to other forms of attack, involving 145 lawyers, prosecutors and judges.
We have also noted that 91% of reported attacks were against our organization (NUPL). The highest number of attacks was recorded in 2019, with at least 39 incidents.
> Yet you continue to work, despite the risks and threats
Yes, but because I think that it’s worth it, that some good will come of it, not just for me, but for the communities I serve, for the Filipino people, for the world. I want to live for a long time, but if they kill me because of what I do, maybe this is my destiny. I want my work to continue to influence more people to work for human rights or to support other lawyers when they are at risk.
As lawyers, we face constant threats and official complaints about the human rights cases we deal with. Our clients are branded as “terrorists,” “communists,” or “enemies of the state” because of their demands. And we, their lawyers are labelled in the same manner. But we take these brands as the badges of our worth, as we are both with and for the Filipino masses who demand justice and equality. We will not be intimidated. We will not give up. We will go out and defend our clients. Even if we have to do it to the death.
> How does this targeted persecution affect you in the work of judges, prosecutors and lawyers?
Campaigns of defamation, surveillance and harassment are made and, what’s even worse, our colleagues are being murdered. During the trials we attend we have observed suspicious people taking photos and notes, and watching us intently. As for the judges and prosecutors, they also feel like they are being ‘watched’ with respect to how they handle our cases, which greatly affects the way they do their job. We recently lost a partner, Benjamin Ramon, who was 56 years old and the father of three children. His daughter recently become a lawyer and has pledged to continue her father’s legacy and represent the poor and the oppressed. Knowing that Ben Ramon was murdered for doing his job causes us both alarm and concern. However his death also sheds light on our own moral compasses when it comes to deciding what battles we should fight. And we have decided to wage these battles against oppression, repression and injustice.
> Your profession is your activism and your life
It certainly is. The oath we took as lawyers is to defend justice, to defend equality. At the Faculty of Law we were taught that we won’t make money doing this, that it is not a business, that it is non-profit. The law calls us to serve for equality, for justice and all these ideals in a peaceful society. And I believe that they are not just ideals, not just principles, we also try to encourage lawyers to join our ranks, defend the profession, and defend the people from a moral and spiritual point of view, because that is the essence of our work and of life itself.