COMMENTARY | In defense of Harry Roque, a true defender of journalists

The following was originally posted on Facebook as a personal note of Mylah Reyes Roque, wife of lawyer Harry Roque. 

Today, I write about the man I am married to but who I barely talk about or refer to in the social media – not that I actively engage in it in the first place. My friends know of course that my husband is the lawyer and law professor Harry Roque, who is also a private prosecutor in the Ampatuan trial. I don’t mention this in Facebook but I don’t hide it either. He is “public”; I on the other hand am happy to keep and remain with my small circle of friends. He maintains a blog, is active on Twitter and has two Facebook accounts, one active and one “unable to accept any more friends.” My Facebook, on the other hand, has just slightly over 500 friends and I use twitter only to check on #mmda and #walangpasok.

So for the first time I break my quiet as regards Harry.

Harry, or a person identified with a cell phone number corresponding to his, is being accused of accepting P10 million and a car from the Ampatuans to sell out his clients in the Ampatuan trial. The accusation comes from an alleged informant of another private prosecutor. The information is based on handwritten entries in somebody’s notebook. This prosecutor refuses to fully identify the informant but she made a public announcement anyway. The alleged informant also accuses some of Harry’s clients of accepting payment from the Ampatuans. These stories about payoffs to the victims are an old hat. Yesterday, the demolition job was on the fiscals and justice undersecretary. Today Harry is the one accused of being on the take. One can keep trying to throw mud but it won’t always stick.

By the way, that cell phone number is familiar to everyone who has ever received a press statement from Harry or Centerlaw because it is the number always indicated as reference. It is also a number that is published in his blog. Further, I am sure the car distributor Autohaus Libis knows how Harry paid for his car, how much it was, and which bank facilitated the purchase.

Harry and his partners in the organization Centerlaw, represent families of the 13 journalists and media workers, as well as two other non-media victims, who are among the 58 brazenly killed in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

I like to think that Harry takes the cudgels for journalists because I used to work as a full time broadcast journalist. When we met he saw the kind of conditions I worked in: low pay, long hours, and exposure to hazardous environment. I have stopped working full time a long time ago but he has since made more friends in the media both in Metro Manila and other regions. He is fascinated with journalists. Aside from the victims in the Ampatuan trial, Centerlaw handles libel and freedom of information cases and advocacy campaigns. He even brought the fight of a Davao-City based journalist, who was in prison while being tried for libel, all the way to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) where he won a favorable ruling.

P10 million (and a car) is a big amount of money but it is also an amount that is very insulting. I believe people think Harry is poor and we as a family have done nothing to contradict that. We are not poor, we are not rich but I like to think we are comfortable. I also like to think we live simply – with travel perhaps our only extravagance. Harry went to college in Michigan and returned to the University of the Philippines to take up law. He then took his postgraduate degree in law in London. On all occasions, he was a paying student, not a scholar.

Sometime last year, my son’s classmate asked him if he was on scholarship. He isn’t. When my son told me about it, he also said that he understood the question that was really being asked. He goes to a private school for boys and perhaps the parents of his classmates thought we could not afford the tuition. We talked about it and I told him there is no shame in being a scholar (he isn’t).

One of the questions people often ask me is if Harry gets paid as a lawyer in the Ampatuan trial. The answer is no. Harry has taken in his 15 Ampatuan-victim-clients pro bono and has not received payment from them, save for the fruits, pastries and rice cakes they bring when they visit his office. Harry and his partners (all of 10 lawyers) have a thriving private practice taking up commercial cases and even international law cases as their bread and butter, and this private practice allows Harry to engage in public interest cases through their Centerlaw non-profit organization. It also helps that he has very, very capable partners and associates.

Centerlaw’s clients are also being accused of accepting money from the Ampatuans to drop the case. I personally know most of these widows and mothers; it is the height of cruelty to use their poverty and vulnerability against them. The bribe attempts are true. Many of them have told me stories of how they were “invited” to dialogues and offered money in exchange for signing documents to drop the case.

I see this trial, as well as its coverage, from the points of view of two sides: of one who used to cover news events, and one who now sympathizes and knows some of the victims. I do not like today’s glimpse.

This trial, messy to begin with, is becoming messier. If you are interested, I suggest that you watch the trial, held some days at the Quezon City RTC and some days at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig City. These accusations of being on the take are all manufactured accusations, meant to cause trouble for the prosecution. It also coincides with the fact that the prosecution rests and the defense will soon be presenting its evidence. The trial will become more colorful. This is a trial that should be made public, period. Sunlight is the best antiseptic and the best tool to show who is selling who; who is capable and who is not.


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