Lawyer Maria Sol Taule (right) assists Australian missionary nun Patricia Fox in filing an affidavit before the Bureau of Immigration in Manila on May 4, 2018. (Photo by Mark Saludes/ucanews.com)
After a well-deserved Christmas vacation, Filipino lawyer Maria Sol Taule is bracing for a tumultuous 2019 due to the "deteriorating human rights situation" in her country, which deported Australian nun Patricia Fox has partly blamed on President Rodrigo Duterte's "reign of terror."
Sol, as her friends call her, is setting aside her ukulele and the paintbrushes she brought home during the break as she prepares to revisit the "fatigue and frustration" that plagued her last year, both in and out of court.
"This year will be tougher," said the 32-year-old, who works pro bono for farmers, workers, activists and political prisoners that are otherwise unable to avail themselves of legal services.
Taule has dealt with cases of human rights violations and alleged state-sponsored attacks since her activist days in college.
She joined the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), a group of lawyers that provide free services to victims of rights abuses, as a legal staffer in 2007 while she was still studying law.
Her work with the lawyers' group gave Taule the opportunity "to better understand the legal system" in the country and "realize the great need of pro-bono lawyers."
"Our clients are those who cannot afford to have a lawyer or are too poor to fight for their rights or defend themselves in court," she said.
It was her childhood dream to become a lawyer. But what made her decide to work for the poor was an encounter with a group of farmers she assisted while still a student.
"One of the farmers said to me, 'We don't have money to pay you, but we have vegetables and livestock,'" she recalled.
"The message was clear," she said. "There are a lot of poor people who need free legal services. The question is, who would provide it?"
Taule said her Catholic education taught her important values such as humility and a sense of duty to care for those in need.
In 2018 she served as legal counsel for the Australian missionary nun Patricia Fox, who was detained and later deported for her alleged involvement in illegal political activities.
Maria Sol Taule speaks to journalists during a media briefing in Manila on Nov. 3, 2018. (Photo by Mark Saludes/ucanews.com)
The case set "many new precedents" for the young lawyer, who passed the bar in 2017. For a start, it was her first time to defend a nun (Sister Fox is also a lawyer).
"We defend persecuted human rights defenders, but Sister Fox's case was not usual. She is not just a rights activist and a lawyer, but also a moral compass," she said.
For six months, Taule was by the nun's side until the missionary was forced to leave the country.
Taule said she experienced a "personal conversion" because of the case that showed her "the real meaning of mercy and compassion."
"I studied in a Catholic school, but this is the first time I saw a Catholic nun who had literally dedicated her life to the poor," she said.
She recalled how people from the villages where Sister Fox worked offered to appear in court to testify on the nun's behalf by explaining how she had helped them and changed their lives.
"One thing that Sister Fox taught me is to keep calm and maintain my demeanor," she said. "Our struggle is not over and I know there will be more [challenging human rights cases] in our way."
In a New Year statement, Taule's organization, the NUPL, said it was preparing "for even more vicious attacks by the forces of darkness in the coming year."
Lawyer Edre Olalia, the president of the organization, said the government has already launched attacks against dissenters, activists, human rights defenders, religious groups, and revolutionaries.
Olalia said his group draws "strength in the belief that, ultimately, the people shall overcome and that truth, justice, even just decency, common sense and reason will be with us."
"Despite being battle-scarred, the fire in our belly lingers and we shall be there on the front line [of defense] for the downtrodden, for the underdog, for the powerless," he added.
The past year was indeed tragic. Gunmen shot and killed lawyer Benjamin Ramos, a founding member of the organization, on Negros Island in the central Philippines.
"We will not look the other way and be silent in the face of injustice, insanity and tyranny. We shall stand our ground and the people will prevail in the end," said Olalia.
Rights group Karapatan has recorded at least 216 cases of political killings from July 2016, when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, to November 2018.
The organization also listed about 2,000 cases where activists were illegally arrested, and more than 71,000 cases where they were threatened and harassed.
"We are expecting these numbers to rise in the coming year because the government has extended military rule in Mindanao," said Cristina Palabay of Karapatan.
Taule is well aware that her job puts her life in danger.
She said she could have practiced law in a much less dangerous environment and for better-paying clients, had she put her own safety first.
"But what drives me is not the riches I could get. What drives me to continue fighting and defending the rights of the poor is the same people I fight for and defend," she said.
"They are the reason why I choose to give my services for free ... [they are] the forces that inspire me to give more, to perform better, and to stand my ground," she added.
As the smog over Manila triggered by all the New Year revelry was starting to clear, Taule was already back at her desk, ready for whatever challenges the year was preparing to throw at her.