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Honoring a Philippine Human Rights Icon

Rene Saguisag Defended Victims of Abuses During Marcos Dictatorship

Human rights lawyer and former senator Rene Saguisag holds a copy of a book about the martial law period in the Philippines while describing his ordeal in detention, Manila, September 26, 2018.  © 2018 Bullit Marquez/AP Photo

The Philippines on April 23 lost a human rights stalwart. Rene Saguisag, a human rights lawyer and former senator, defended victims of abuses during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and was an ardent human rights advocate in the ensuing years. He died of undisclosed causes at the age of 84.

Saguisag, along with Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada, and other human rights lawyers, worked on countless cases for the Free Legal Assistance Group, a pioneering nongovernmental organization that provided pro bono legal assistance to victims of human rights violations. Later, Saguisag formed Mabini, which also helped victims of government abuses. He also assisted in the prosecution of human rights violators, among them leaders of a paramilitary cult.

Saguisag rose to further prominence after the “People Power” uprising in 1986 when Corazon Aquino, who became president after Marcos’s downfall, named him her spokesman. He was elected to the Philippine Senate in 1987. As a senator, he led work promoting government ethics and accountability and was among those voting to close the United States military bases in the country.

After retiring from politics in 1992, Saguisag returned to law and wrote newspaper columns and essays, often almost gleefully recalling his former cases. He also helped the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes), a foundation that runs the country’s martial law memorial. He was a fierce critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs.”

Rene Saguisag was an inspiration to a generation of Filipinos and human rights defenders. As the Philippines continues to grapple with serious rights issues, his presence, wit, wisdom, and commitment will be greatly missed.

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