Maria Sol Tauleis a Filipino lawyer who legally defends people who cannot afford legal assistance, especially activists and human rights defenders criminalized by state institutions. Maria Sol Taule has been working since 2011 with Karapatan, an alliance of organizations, collectives and programs that defend human rights, with degrees in Law and Public Administration and Governance from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
Karapatan monitors and documents human rights violations, provides assistance to victims and promotes training and awareness-raising activities. In a context of intense repression, the visible faces of the organization often receive attacks and death threats, and the organization’s office has experienced several incidents. Taule, for its part, has been attacked on the Internet, especially on social networks. They are trolls and Facebook users who, according to the activist, have links to the army. They accuse Taule of legally defending rebels, communists and terrorists.
In addition to Karapatan, Taule carries out her human rights advocacy work through the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL). It is a statewide human rights organization composed of law students, lawyers and legal professionals. Taule joined NUPL while in law school and, as legal advisor to Karapatan, works closely with the organization when it engages in cases involving human rights violations.
In addition to practicing law, Taule is also an artist. Many of her works are linked to her human rights advocacy work. “It’s a very effective tool to expose and express issues in a different way,” she explains.
According to human rights organizations, since Duterte took office in 2016, his “war on drugs” has claimed between 20,000 and 30,000 lives in extrajudicial killings. . Official figures, given by his administration, speak of some 6,000 killed in the framework of anti-drug operations. In this context, one of Karapatan’s main functions is to document all suspicious disappearances and these killings. Maria Sol explains: “In Karapatan we have 14 regional offices, from where we document disappearances and killings. We do it from the field. Once we get the information, we cross-reference the data to find patterns. For example, many of the murders are carried out from motorcycles: there are always two people: one drives and the one on the back shoots. We also know that many of the people they have killed have been red-tagged before and their faces have previously appeared on posters on social media. We are talking about people who had been accused of being terrorists prior to their murder.”
On 2017, the Philippine government broke off peace talks with the National Democratic Front and now, along with the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines are considered terrorist organizations In March 2018, the country ceased to be a member of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As a final capstone to his task of governance, in 2020 Duterte passed a new Anti-Terrorism Act,which shortens prosecutions and makes everyone liable to be charged with terrorism. You only have to be minimally related to one of these organizations to be red-tagged.
In 2021, the International Criminal Court began investigating the massacres carried out by the Duterte administration. It was in June of that same year that Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda published some findings of her preliminary investigation into the war on drugs. The report concluded that there was a reasonable basis to determine that crimes against humanity have been committed in the Philippines. Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine National Police and the military and the Drug Enforcement Agency are currently under investigation. Maria Sol Taule confesses that she is very hopeful about these investigations and is sure that the Philippine president, who is about to leave office, will be tried in the medium term.
For his part, Duterte has already assured that since he is not part of the ICC, it does not have jurisdiction over the country and, therefore, he will cooperate with the investigation. He considers the investigation “illegal”, but the truth is that the ICC is investigating events that happened before the country left the Rome Statute and, consequently, it can continue to investigate. In fact, the study also includes murders that took place in Davao when Duterte was mayor.
OnMay 9, crucial elections are scheduled that may determine the course of the country. The current president cannot run for reelection – the Constitution forbids it – but his daughter, Sara Duterte, current mayor of Davao, is running as vice president, in tandem with Ferdinand “Bongbong”Marcos, son of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Asian country from 1965 to 1986. For Maria Sol Taule, the victory of this tandem would be bad news for the country, since it would hinder the dialogue and the investigation by the International Criminal Court would be severely hampered.
How did you decide to become a lawyer for people who cannot afford one?
When I was in law school, I had a clear vision: I would finish my studies and dedicate my legal practice to people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer, especially in cases where their rights are violated by the State. My exposure to social problems in the Philippines since I was a university student and my involvement in social movements greatly influenced my decision to go into grassroots advocacy. This involves defending clients not only in the courtroom, but also in the streets and wherever else they demand justice.
How has your work changed since Duterte came to power in 2016?
The Duterte Administration has not been doing anything different from previous administrations in terms of implementing counterinsurgency programs, which really target activists and human rights defenders. What has changed during its mandate is that the government has become more systematic and atrocious, because it has been using State institutions to persecute people perceived as enemies: assassinating them or subjecting them to judicial harassment, with false accusations and denunciations.
Criminalization of human rights defenders is a common practice.
Many human rights defenders in the Philippines face false accusations. Their names are included in court records, alleging that they are involved in armed clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the New People’s Army (NPA). The authorities are also conducting illegal searches of the headquarters of progressive organizations, planting fake evidence such as firearms and explosives, and arresting and detaining individuals from these entities.
One of the standard practices of the Duterte administration has been red-tagging.. What does this consist of?
There is no universal and exact definition, but we could say that red-tagging consists of the defamation, discrediting or discrediting of anyone who thinks differently from what the government brands. It is used as a weapon to silence activists and dissidents.
Has Duterte taken advantage of the crisis caused by Covid-19 to close the country? How has the pandemic affected you?
The Philippines was one of the last countries to close the borders because at the beginning of the pandemic Duterte was a denialist. When he saw how it was starting to affect the country, he decided to close it. Before the pandemic, his administration was always concerned about the entry of foreign people like journalists, human rights defenders or international observers. As for the pandemic, we are one of the countries that spends the least money on healthcare and this has been a problem. The administration has had to outsource services to other governments to deal with the crisis. This has caused the debt to increase considerably. People have suffered and there are still those who go hungry and those who have no work. Fortunately, the communities have worked hard and have created solidarity networks made up of volunteers that have spread like mushrooms and have helped to alleviate the situation of some families.
Recently, one of the largest media outlets in the country, ABS-CBN, has been closed down. In Karapatan, you have expressed your concern and condemned the escalation of violence against journalists in the context of the upcoming elections.
Journalists are one of the groups that have been most at risk in recent years. Many of them have open criminal cases and others have been arrested. This has happened systematically. There has been a frontal attack on the right to information and freedom of expression.
Duterte won in 2016 with a large majority. Has his image changed in the eyes of the citizenry?
Duterte’s image as a strongman has been fading over the years; in fact, many people have been very disappointed with his administration. He won because he is a populist who showed himself as an ordinary citizen and because he uses language that appeals to the people. He did not present himself like traditional politicians, who are usually big landholders.
His speech became very popular, but the number of killings from his war on drugs has caused his image to suffer, especially in and around Manila. It is curious because it was the most impoverished people who voted massively for Duterte and these have been mainly his target.
What role have the police and the military played?
In the war on drugs, the agents follow orders from above. The government holds them responsible for what has happened, but ultimately it is the higher-ups who are responsible. All this has been done with absolute impunity and now the government wants to change and control the narrative.
How have you worked in Karapatan with the new Anti-Terrorism Law?
Since it was put in place, we have documented several cases of activist individuals to whom it has been applied. We have asked the Supreme Court to review the cases. The fact is that this law is used against everyone and it is a very convenient and useful tool to label activists and dissidents as terrorists, because it is a very broad and very interpretable law.
How do you see the upcoming elections? They are very important for the country.
Yes, and we have faith and do not lose hope. We are crossing our fingers that the “Bongbong” Marcos-Sara Duterte tandem does not win. Obviously, if these two people win, investigations will go much slower, because of course, who wants to put their father behind bars? That is why the May elections are crucial.
What do the polls say?
The polls say that Leni Rubredo, the current vice-president, could win the elections, but recently some information was published that assures that there is a big difference between her and Marcos. The latter would win and obtain 60% of the votes to Rubredo’s 16%. Although we question the results of these voting intentions, we do see that citizens are showing some sympathy for Marcos, who has been thinking of returning to power for some time.
Is this the worst case scenario?
Yes. If Rubredo wins, it may be that the dialogue will be reopened and his administration will be willing to change course. This will not happen if Marcos wins the elections. This family still has cases pending and they have been sentenced for drug and corruption issues. They have not returned the money they stole in the country.
Do you think the Anti-Terrorism Law could be abolished?
We have the feeling that human rights violations in the country will continue and that the law will not disappear, but will continue to be applied against dissidents and activists, among others.
What can the international community do to help human rights defenders in the Philippines?
The international community needs to support the call for an independent investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines. It is very important that pressure be put on the government to stop the attacks on civil society and human rights defenders. More importantly, solidarity from other peoples and support from the international community for human rights defenders and their communities is critical to lift their spirits and make them feel that they are not alone in seeking peace and justice in the midst of attacks and repression.
You are very fond of art and in your free time you paint with watercolor. How can you do activism from the world of culture?
Currently, I am part of a group of artists campaigning against Duterte and Marcos. We do online exhibitions to show the struggle of the Filipino people and it is now that I am starting to get into the art scene in the country. I think a lot of criticism can be made from art, but more organization is needed.