Human rights lawyer Benjamin Tarug Ramos was ambushed on November 6, 2018. ( Photo Credit: MASIPAG)

Philippines

“The people lost another good defender”

By Amber Heckelman

(Ed’s note: Amber Heckelman met Ramos while doing her doctoral field work in Negros. She shares her recollection of Atty. Ramos in LinkedIn)

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/salamat-nong-ben-amber-heckelman/

Amber Heckelman (Provided)

At approximately 9:30 PM (PHT) on Tuesday, November 6th human rights lawyer Benjamin Tarug Ramos, 56, was reportedly ambushed by two men on a motorcycle in Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental. 

Ramos, affectionately called Attorney Ben or Nong Ben, sustained four gunshot wounds and was declared dead upon arrival at Holy Mother of Mercy Kabankalan City Hospital. He is the 34th lawyer killed under the Duterte Administration.

Ramos was not only a lawyer but also a leader in the efforts to uplift the lives of farmers in Negros. He was instrumental to sugar plantation workers in their struggle for genuine agrarian reform. 

Ramos was “a ‘go-to’ pro-bono lawyer of peasants, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners and mass organizations in Negros,” according to a statement made by the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), an organization to which Ramos was a founding member and Secretary General.

“A dedicated people’s lawyer and staunch advocate of people’s rights, Nong Ben served mostly the poor rural sectors in their struggle for land and rights in Negros,” said JunJun Genol, Member of Management Body for Paghida-et sa Kauswagan Development Group(PDG), a Kabankalan-based NGO serving the poor and marginalized sector in Southern Negros Occidental to which Ramos was a founding member and Executive Director.

Ramos provided the resources and helped build the necessary infrastructure to ensure farmers could develop their own agricultural technologies and resources. Long before the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010, Ramos was on the frontlines of the Organic Movement in Negros, mobilizing and empowering farmers in the Visayas region. 

According to a statement made by Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), a farmer-led network working to improve the quality of life of resource-poor farmers:

Photo: Panay News

“For years, Atty Ben has helped mold the policies and principles of MASIPAG that put the interests of the poor farmers front and center of our sustainable agriculture programs. As one of the founding members of MASIPAG in the Visayas region, PDG as headed by Atty Ben, instituted and embodied the farmer-led development, a development paradigm that is now being recognized and echoed in many organizations in and outside of the country. Atty Ben believed in the agency and capacity of the farmers to uplift themselves from poverty and food insecurity and helped raise their consciousness to their plight and what they could do to free themselves from landlessness, poverty and dependence. Many of the farmers he helped were once daily-wage sugar plantation workers who after MASIPAG and PDG intervention have shifted to sustainable and organic agriculture.”

Many believe Ramos was a victim of the ‘red tagging’ occurring under the Duterte Administration. 

“We believe that the murder is a part of the state sponsored terrorism to stop those who help the poor on suspicion that they are ‘communists’ – a very wrong logic and ‘policy’,” according to Dr. Chito Medina, Former National Coordinator of MASIPAG. 

“Last April, a poster with pictures of people suspected to be associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines was circulated in Negros. Atty Ben was on this poster, but Ben is simply a human rights lawyer and development worker,” said Medina.

The poster was “pasted by the Philippine National Police in the town of Moises Padilla, Negros Occidental” according to a statement released by PDG. 

“He was maliciously linked by the 15th Infantry Battalion in an Internal Security Operations (ISO) briefing before members of the Association of Barangay Captains (ABC) in the municipality of Cauayan, south of Negros Occidental,” the group stated.

Earlier reports indicate that Ramos attributed the ‘red tagging’ to his being the counsel to the Mabinay 6. When asked about the poster that was circulating around Negros, he responded, “I am treating it as a harassment to prevent [me] from taking on human rights cases.”

The Mabinay 6 case involves Myles Albasin, 21, and five others who are being “illegally detained and facing trumped-up charges” according to Karapatan Cebu Chairperson Dr. Pheobe Zoe Sanchez. 

“The [group] opted to go and serve farmers communities in Negros Oriental organized by Kaugmaon-KMP. Community Development work is now labeled as terrorist work. That’s why they use the military institution to go after community development workers,” Sanchez reported.

Despite receiving death threats, Ramos remained fearless and steadfast in being a source of hope for the accused and their families. Anakbayan Cebu released a telling statement by Grace Albasin, mother of Myles Albasin, on Ramos’ fierce and tireless commitment to seeking justice for the Mabinay 6:

“Our hearts bleed for the murder of Atty. Ben Ramos. On day one of the arrest of Myles and the five others, Atty. Ben came regardless of border and distance because no one was there to assist them on legal matters yet. As the Secretary General of NUPL in Negros Occidental, he chose to be more human and showed up to assess the Mabinay 6 case. He escorted the mothers to see their children at the jail. He slept in an office and ate with us. From then on, he never missed a single court appearance together with the other NUPL lawyers for Mabinay 6. He knew he was targeted, but it didn’t deter his spirit to take the cases of the ordinary folks including Mabinay 6. He always braved the more than two hours traveling to attend court hearings. He made his house a home to the families he defended. He eased tension with humor. In the short time we spent together, we saw a man of compassion and dedication to the less fortunate. He lived for the people without fear. This legacy he left behind is etched in the hearts of the people he served.” 

Others believe Ramos was targeted for providing legal assistance to the families of the Sagay farmers – the 9 members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) killed last month in a suspected land conflict. Dubbed the Sagay Massacre, the nine farmers were occupying land at Hacienda Nene in Barangay Bulanon, Sagay City when unidentified armed men opened fire on the victims who were all resting under a tent at the time.

Karapatan, an alliance for the advancement of people’s rights, pointed to security forces, “including their auxiliary forces who prop up greedy landlords” as being responsible for Ramos’ death. 

“When the Philippine National Police in Negros placed Attorney Ben’s name and picture in what can only be described as a poster-hitlist in April 2018, they have made him and other mass leaders and human rights workers open targets for precisely this kind of attack,” the group stated. 

The Sagay Massacre is the 8th recorded massacre of farmers under the Duterte administration, according to the Kilusang ng Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, an organization of landless peasants, small farmers, farm workers, rural youth and peasant women.

As of now, the National Bureau of Investigation has no suspects nor an explanation.

“We hold the ruling elite, most especially the big landlords and the fascist troops of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as the forces behind the killing of Atty Benjamin T. Ramos, Jr.,” said PDG. 

“All accounts and circumstances point to Extra Judicial Killing (EJK) that targeted personalities of the progressive organizations and human rights advocates,” the group said.

As many await for truth and justice to arise out of this travesty, an outpour of statements by individuals, communities, and organizations across the Philippines and abroad are condemning the murder of Ramos.

“Killing lawyers is not just a brazen violation of their rights as people and as defenders, it shows that no justice can be expected under a regime that kills advocates of peace and justice, the farmers who feed the country, and lawyers who defend victims of abuses in the name of justice.” – Hustisya, Victims United for Justice

“The killing of our beloved, adorably husky-voiced zany, Ben has distressed all of us, battle-scarred and seemingly undaunted and impervious to threats and dangers while courageously, even at times audaciously, running against the tide of daily injustice, oppression and repression in defense of the defenseless and persecuted. But who will defend the defenders? Our clients will. The people and their various organizations will. And we the lawyers of the people will not be cowed, will not blink, will not retreat, we will not look the other way, and we will stand our ground. Yet we will close ranks. We will be there in the trenches in defense of the defenseless. There is no other choice. It is a painful price we have to pay sometimes in the service of the people and as a pledge to the next generations we will leave behind.” – National Union of People’s Lawyers

“If [the state] thinks they could scare the people by killing farmers, youth, lawyers, and activists, it is only fooling itself. It only breeds resistance: with every activist killed by this regime, more peasant organizers, more youth activists, more people’s lawyers will rise in their place to continue the fight…” – League of Filipino Students-UST

The accumulation of statements are expressions of solidarity with all of the communities and organizations that Ramos worked with. They are also expressions of gratitude for his life’s work and unfettered commitment to human rights, agrarian reform, and farmer empowerment.

“Yes, we are devasted from the murder of Atty Ben,” said Medina. “He had chosen to serve the poor, stand for the rights of the oppressed, and service the people. But his death makes us more determined to do genuine development work, and to fight against injustice.”

A gofundme page was started by members of Attorney Benjamin Tarug Ramos’ family. Please consider making a donation.