Profiles of Courage

Romeo Capulong

Romeo Capulong turned 75 in February of 2010. Instead of celebrating his birthday, Capulong was busy handling paperworks as the leading legal counsel for the Morong 43, a group of healthcare workers arrested by the military on suspicions of being trainee rebels of the New People’s Army.[1] Capulong never tired of appearing in courts for his clients, even in old age. When he was asked about his drive to continue his practice, Capulong responded: “I still want to research so I can see the issues on how I can fight for the right thing. I want to write or read. I want to analyze; because you would want to fight injustice, that will keep you going.[2]

During the turbulent times of the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the helpless Filipinos were left with few options. They had to acquiesce with the demands of the military or face merciless persecution at the hands of the same. The government pursued anything they considered subversive; even Filipinos who were not even critical of the government would not be safe from the whims of the cruel men in uniforms. It was during these times when recourse was provided by human rights lawyers, who would take it upon themselves to arrest injustices however they could. The endeavor was risky, however, as the lawyers of those deemed radical or anti-government may be regarded the same and jailed alongside their clients.[3]

Upon the declaration of Martial Law, Capulong, fondly called “Ka Romy” by the people, was one of these renowned human rights lawyers who frequently handled the cases of the poor, the political prisoners and the detained activists. He opted to be a lawyer who preferred handling cases pro bono (for free) for the sake of public interest and to defend those vulnerable to injustice.[4] While he joined the ranks of other human rights lawyers, he was not as visible to the general public like the others were as he immersed himself more with grassroots movements. He sought not the adulation of the masses, but merely their safety and security from unjust litigations.

Being consistently able to stifle and delay the efforts of the regime in silencing dissent, Capulong found himself facing an arrest warrant in 1978, not unlike other critics of the administration who have been arrested previously, which also included countless human rights lawyers.[5] He left the country in 1979 and settled in the United States where he founded the Filipino Lawyers Committee on human rights, forming a tangible network between human rights organizations in the U.S. and the embattled human rights lawyers in the Philippines.[6]

Following the deposition of Marcos, he returned to the Philippines and established the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) in support of human rights victims moving forward, and he was also a founding member of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), an organization of like-minded volunteer law practitioners committed to providing accessible legal defense and to the promotion of human rights.[7] He was a lawyer for the Martial Law victims in the class suit against the Marcoses in Hawaii.[8] He strived to ensure that following the lawsuits, legislation should be put in place that would ensure transparency, swift justice and prevention of further impediments for the victims to receive compensation. The ruling provided $2 billion as reparation for the victims of execution, torture and detainment during the dictatorship, which would be paid to them and their families.[9]

Capulong never stopped emphasizing the importance of human rights lawyers especially in the face of authoritarianism, encouraging his peers not to hide in fear, but to fight back.[10] He steadfastly continued in his advocacy for providing free and accessible legal counsel for the oppressed. He challenged the assumption of fairness and justice of the law, believing it to be systematically skewed to favor the affluent and powerful. He sided with the aggrieved and encouraged them to fight for themselves to disrupt this status quo of inequality.[11]

“I still want to research so I can see the issues on how I can fight for the right thing. I want to write or read. I want to analyze; because you would want to fight injustice, that will keep you going.”

During the succeeding administrations, he continued taking up the cases of and fighting for the political prisoners, activists and Filipino poor. He had been involved in the legal battles of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., and was involved in the battles of Flor Contemplacion, the Hacienda Luisita massacre victims, and the Batasan 6, among many others. He was also a key figure in peace talks between communist rebels and the Philippine government. One of his last cases, that of the Morong 43, ended in victory with their eventual release later that year.[12] After a long battle with his illness, Capulong died of cardiac arrest on September 16, 2012, days before the country marked the 40th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law. His wake and funeral were attended by his friends and colleagues, many of whom he inspired with his overflowing passion of serving the people.[13]

Capulong’s legacy as a human rights lawyer — as a people’s lawyer — is enduring, even after his death. However, the systemic repression he fought against still lingers in today’s society, so more than ever, the Filipinos must embody and abide by Capulong’s words of encouragement: not to hide in fear, but to fight back and stand high. “Lawyering for the people should be linked to the overall struggle for meaningful changes in our society,” as the people’s “Ka Romy” would say.[14] He always believed in the Filipino people and the Filipino people in him.

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References:

“Abogado ng Sambayanan.” Documentary on Romeo Capulong. Snippet on YouTube. Quezon City: Kodao Productions, 2008.

Araullo, Atom, Gretchen Malalad, and Chiara Zambrano. “Court orders release of ‘Morong 43’.”, December 17, 2010. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/12/17/10/court-orders-release-morong-43.

“Atty. Romeo T. Capulong: People’s Lawyer, Human Rights Defender.” Karapatan. September 18, 2012. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://www.karapatan.org/node/606.

Capulong, Romeo. Interview with Laura L. Gonzaga. National Midweek. Quezon City: Lagda Pub. Incorporated. May 13, 1992. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=483643354987077&set=a.483643288320417.

“Human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong dies at 77.” ABS-CBN News. September 16, 2012. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/09/16/12/human-rights-lawyer-romeo-capulong-dies-77.

Padilla, Arnold. “A national loss.” WordPress. September 20, 2012. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://arnoldpadilla.com/2012/09/20/a-national-loss.

Robles, Raissa. Marcos Martial Law: Never Again. Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016.

Salaverria, Leila and Nina Calleja. “Romeo ‘Ka Romy’ Capulong called a rare gem.” Philippine Daily Inquirer. September 18, 2012. Accessed May 20, 2021. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/272498/romeo-ka-romy-capulong-called-a-rare-gem.

[1] Atom Araullo, Gretchen Malalad, and Chiara Zambrano, “Court orders release of ‘Morong 43’,” December 17, 2010, accessed May 20, 2021, https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/12/17/10/court-orders-release-morong-43.

[2] “Abogado ng Sambayanan,” Documentary on Romeo Capulong, snippet on YouTube, Quezon City: Kodao Productions, 2008, https://youtu.be/TnBKfmUhQSs. Original in Filipino: Gusto ko pang mag-research para makita ko ‘yung mga issues kung papaano ko ilalaban ‘yung tama. Gusto kong magsulat, o magbasa. Gusto kong suriin. Dahil gusto mong labanan ‘yung mga nangyayaring masama, that will keep you going.

[3] Raissa Robles, Marcos Martial Law: Never Again (Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016), x, 135.

[4] Leila Salaverria and Nina Calleja, “Romeo ‘Ka Romy’ Capulong called a rare gem,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 18, 2012, accessed May 20, 2021, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/272498/romeo-ka-romy-capulong-called-a-rare-gem.

[5] Romeo Capulong, interview with Laura L. Gonzaga, National Midweek (Quezon City: Lagda Pub. Incorporated), May 13, 1992. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=483643354987077&set=a.483643288320417.

[6] “Atty. Romeo T. Capulong: People’s Lawyer, Human Rights Defender,” Karapatan, September 18, 2012, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.karapatan.org/node/606.

[7] Padilla, Arnold, “A national loss,” WordPress, September 20, 2012, accessed May 20, 2021, https://arnoldpadilla.com/2012/09/20/a-national-loss. The PILC was also established amid allegations of human rights violations during the administration of President Cory Aquino.

[8]“Atty. Romeo T. Capulong: People’s Lawyer, Human Rights Defender.”

[9] “Human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong dies at 77,” ABS-CBN News, September 16, 2012, accessed May 20, 2021. https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/09/16/12/human-rights-lawyer-romeo-capulong-dies-77.

[10] Salaverria and Calleja, “Romeo ‘Ka Romy’ Capulong.”

[11] Padilla, Arnold, “A national loss.”

[12] Ibid. Flor Contemplacion was an overseas filipino worker (OFW) in Singapore accused of murder in 1995. The Hacienda Luisita massacre victims were farmers and union workers violently dispersed during a protest demanding higher wages, benefits and land reform in 2004. The Batasan 6 were a group of lawmakers detained on charges of inciting sedition in 2006.

[13] “Human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong dies at 77.”

[14] “Abogado ng Sambayanan.”

Romeo Capulong at the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) hearing of the Morong 43 as their legal counsel in 2010. Photo cropped and retrieved from Renato Reyes’s WordPress at https://natoreyes.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/farewell-atty-romeo-capulong-beloved-peoples-lawyer-and-fighter-for-national-freedom-and-democracy/
Romeo Capulong at the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) hearing of the Morong 43 as their legal counsel in 2010. Photo cropped and retrieved from Renato Reyes’s WordPress at https://natoreyes.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/farewell-atty-romeo-capulong-beloved-peoples-lawyer-and-fighter-for-national-freedom-and-democracy/

Capulong, Romeo

Birthday: February 15, 1935

Death: September 16, 2012

Parents: N/A

Spouse: Sofia Culanay (life partner); Adoracion Cajucom (former wife)

Children: 6 (Alexander Romeo, Sony, Eduardo Romeo, Rebecca, Roma Pia, and Richard)

 

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