Profiles of Courage

RENE SAGUISAG

Rene Saguisag was an esteemed human rights lawyer during the Martial Law period. He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1963 from San Beda and obtained his master of law degree at Harvard University in 1968.[1] He himself confessed that he was initially conservative and disapproved of students dictating upon their leaders. However, his experiences in Harvard left a distinct imprint on his mind. Returning to the Philippines and experiencing the First Quarter Storm, he quickly became one of the most active opponents of the Marcos dictatorship.[2]

However, Saguisag may not have been one of the more prolific human rights defenders of the time had it not been for a fateful event he fondly recalls to this day. When he returned to the Philippines in December of 1970, Saguisag was newly wed and had a job lined up for him, having been recruited to the Ayala Corporation, upon accepting the offer, Saguisag hitched a ride with his friend Danny Ong from the Ayala building to go to the Bureau of Customs. When they reached the Supreme Court building at Padre Faura, Saguisag saw a rally being led by another friend of his, Roger Rayala. He promptly got out of the car and joined the rally, saying to Ong that he wants to join “his kind of people.” He resigned from Ayala without working a single day and has worked with his kind of people ever since.[3]

He founded the Free Legal Aid Clinic in San Beda along with San Beda College rector, Fr. Bobby Perez and law dean Feliciano Jover Ledesma in 1971. They took on the cases of student demonstrators who were being detained and charged by state officials.[4] He was in their office when Martial Law was declared in 1972. He would recall calling up Senator Jovito Salonga that night. “Our decision was to resist, resist, resist!” he recalls.[5]

Saguisag bore the pressure of being a human rights lawyer with unwavering optimism. He would often appreciate and recall instances of humanity amid the atrocities. His first case, he recalls, was that of a military officer’s son. He had the youth enter a guilty plea and was taken aback when presiding judge Victor Savellano meted out a penalty lower than the minimum. Initially bewildered, he consulted the judge but thought better of it, considering this small victory a testament to the “humane side of martial misrule.”[6]

He eventually became involved with the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), founded by his peers Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada and Joker Arroyo and later became co-founder of the Movement of Attorneys for the Advancement of Brotherhood, Nationalism, and Integrity (MABINI), becoming close colleagues with Arroyo, Jejomar Binay and Fulgencio Factoran Jr., among others. With these organizations, Saguisag and many human rights lawyers managed to form a tightly knit network to pursue their common goal of defending the vulnerable.[7]

Saguisag was involved in many high-profile litigations during Martial Law. He was part of the prosecution team that took on Edilberto, Elpidio, and Norberto Manero, the so-called Manero brothers responsible for the death of renowned missionary Tullio Favali.[8] Led by Joker Arroyo, he was likewise part of the team that represented a group of journalists, columnists and reporters petitioning against those that subpoenaed, interrogated and threatened them.[9]

Saguisag himself even jests that human rights lawyers back then never lost a single case they legitimately handled, save for the ones they could not close as the lawyers themselves were jailed ahead of their clients. He was also fearless in his rhetorics, as he once called out the overwhelming military presence in the courts and in another case called Marcos a “super-subversive,” two incidents which got him imprisoned.[10] When he was not busily handling cases in courts, he was out in the streets, marching with the Filipinos in their protests against injustices in the country.[11]

Following the successful toppling of Marcos in 1986, Saguisag was encouraged to run for a seat in the Senate, which he won. He won without having to spend money to lavishly campaign, something he attributes to the Filipinos perhaps being grateful for his services, as Saguisag famously handled most of his Martial Law cases pro bono (for free).[12] Although a serious car crash in 2007 robbed him of his wife and left him physically weakened, Saguisag has continued what he began in the 1970s.[13] In 2017, he reorganized the remaining members of MABINI to become the Artikulo Tres Human Rights alliance, keeping the same vow of representing human rights victims in court free of charge.[14]

The Martial Law period was considered an era of darkness for the Filipinos, who were faced with poverty, hunger, death and tyranny. In these bleak times, Saguisag, whose name is homophonous with the Filipino word “sagisag” (symbol), became exactly that, a symbol of hope and a ray of light for many hapless victims. For his unending desire to defend the Filipinos solely for the sake of attaining justice and for his relentless effort in resisting and opposing the terrors of Martial Law, Saguisag is recognized as one of the 126 motu proprio victims of Martial Law.

[1] “Rene Saguisag,” Senate of the Philippines, accessed April 27, 2021, http://legacy.senate.gov.ph/senators/former_senators/rene_saguisag.htm.

[2] Esquire, “Saguisag, Rene,” Esquire Philippines (December 2015 – January 2016), November 28, 2016, accessed April 27, 2021, https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/what-ive-learned/rene-saguisag-a1502-20161128-lfrm.

[3] Ibid.; Robles, Marcos Martial Law: Never Again (Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016), ix. He was recruited to Ayala by Joe McMicking, the Makati visionary and husband of an Ayala scion who became a client of his as an associate in the United States, and fellow San Bedan Mario Camacho. Danny Ong was the later BIR Commissioner during the term of Corazon Aquino and Roger Rayala was the later chairperson of the National Labor Relations Commission.

[4] Robles, Marcos Martial Law, x.

[5] Ibid., 135.

[6] Ibid., xi; Rene Saguisag, “Sept. 21 a lie; a tale of 3 Mrs. Saguisags,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 28, 2014, accessed April 27, 2021, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/641142/sept-21-a-lie-a-tale-of-3-mrs-saguisags.

[7] Rene Saguisag, “Sept. 21 a lie.”

[8] Rene Saguisag, “Still dangerous,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 23, 2011, accessed April 27, 2011, https://opinion.inquirer.net/15887/still-dangerous. The prosecution was led mostly by Tirso Velasco, Greg Andolana, Sol Jubillan, Merlin Bello and Orlando Dano, as Saguisag himself recalls withdrawing because then-Presidential candidate Cory Aquino had asked him to be her spokesperson.

[9] Saguisag, “Sept. 21 a lie.” This was G.R. No. L-62992, also known as Babst v. National Intelligence Board, 132 SCRA 316. The petitioners were Arlene Babst, Odette Alcantara, Ceres P. Doyo, Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, Domini Torrevillas Suarez, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, Cielo Buenaventura, Sylvia Mayuga, and Sheila S. Coronel.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. Esquire, “Saguisag, Rene.”

[12] Esquire, “Saguisag, Rene.”

[13] Robles, Marcos Martial Law, x.

[14] Torres, Sherrie Ann. “’Artikulo Tres’ lawyers vow to seek justice for drug war victims.” February 1, 2017. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://news.abs-cbn.com/focus/01/31/17/artikulo-tres-lawyers-vow-to-seek-justice-for-drug-war-victims

Rene Saguisag, human rights lawyer. Photo taken by Joseph Pascual. Retrieved from Esquire Philippines at https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/what-ive-learned/rene-saguisag-a1502-20161128-lfrm.

Saguisag, Rene

Birthday: August 14, 1939

Parents: N/A

Spouse: Dulce Saguisag

Children: 4 (Rene Andrei Jr., Lara, Benedict Aleksandr, and Kaissa)

That is one sad development I keep hearing about [the youth today]. No consciousness about [Martial Law], how it was during those dark years,” laments Rene Saguisag about the perception of Martial Law today. “For one to take part in an electoral process in a dictatorship is to help forge the links in your own chains,” he also warns of the dangers of complicity of the citizenry amid tyranny.

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