We find it futile to be criticising without offering alternatives, and we have proven countless times that people are by nature good. In our own work we see the beauty of reconciliation...

Acceptance speech – Winefreda Geonzon / FREE LAVA

Let me thank once again the members of the Right Livelihood Foundation, especially the members of the jury, for including me in the list of this year’s awardees. I wish you to know that I am indeed greatly honored and very grateful and I shall always remain grateful.

I represent an umbrella organization of 28 Community based groups, bound together by that common desire to help. This is known as the FREE LAVA or THE FREE LEGAL ASSISTANCE VOLUNTEERS ASSOCIATION which is based in the City of Cebu, the largest city outside Manila, Philippines. The FREE LAVA is a service organization registered under the laws of our country. We are non-political and a nonreligious group. We advocate a three-angled program of legal aid, namely: CRIME PREVENTION, FREE LEGAL ASSISTANCE AND REHABILITATION.

Our government has its own CITIZENS LEGAL ASSISTANCE OFFICE or the CLAO which caters to the needs of poor litigants in our country with offices all throughout the land. The association of lawyers in our country called the INTEGRATED BAR OF THE PHILIPPINES also has its own legal aid office, as a public service, with chapters, too, throughout the country. The FREE LAVA IS A PRIVATE ORGANIZATION which has been organized out of need to meet certain conditions prevailing in our country.

Our civilian courts have always been functioning normally despite the imposition of martial law in 1972. However, there were certain types of cases involving security of the state that were tried by the military tribunal. However, in 1981, martial law was lifted and all cases were tried by the civilian courts, except those involving the members of the military and the police force which is now triable by the military tribunal.

In the later part of 1978, I was appointed as the legal aid director of the Cebu City Chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. At that time, martial law was still imposed.
As the legal aid director of our office, instead of the usual way of assisting walk in clients who come to the office, I went instead to on jail center after another. I knew that there were and still are plenty of prisoners who were and are still languishing in jail without being tried and these could not get out to ask for our help. Despite the existence of government legal aid offices, I discovered the following in our jail centers:

a) I met prisoners who stayed in jail for almost five years without charges;

b) prisoners whose presence in jail were not known to the courts despite their long stay in jail. You see, in our criminal justice system, the warrant for the arrest of a person must be returned to the courts. When these warrants are not returned, the subject person now in jail would never be known to the courts. His case will just be set aside.

c) I met prisoners who have been charged of the same offense twice;

d) there were many prisoners who could have been released a long time ago, had their cases been tried on time;

e) very young children have been mixed up with the adult and hardened criminals, and some of them are already overstaying;

f) prisoners who attempted to kill themselves for loss of hope, and many more.

As there are citizens attorneys hired by the government to take care of poor litigants, as the legal aid director of another public service office, I decided to specialize only on the following cases, and leave the other cases to the offices created by the government, namely:

a) to the prisoners who could not afford to hire the services of a counsel,

b) to victims of violations of human rights no matter by whom they are committed,

c) to a large number of urban poor or slum dwellers in their struggle for social justice.

In March, 1979, I met 39 minors in the Cebu City Jail who had long served their sentence had their sentence not been suspended. In our country, we have a Pres. Decree, called PD 603, which calls for the suspension of the promulgation of the sentence of a minor found guilty. Instead, he is given a chance to reform and placed under a rehabilitation center. If he is corrigible, his case will be dismissed. If not, he serves his sentence. There were 39 of these kind I met in one occasion who were given very minor penalties, but then, they stayed in jail far beyond their sentence of conviction. In fact, more than ten (10) of them were given a sentence of reprimand or public censure which does not need an imprisonment, yet, they stayed in jail for almost three years.

As there were no rehabilitation activities in jail, and in order to save the future of the minors, I organized boy scouting movement in jail to get certificates of good behaviour. I have been connected with the boy scouting movement in our country for the last 22 years, and I find the movement to be very fitted to the boys.

One by one, the overstaying were released and their cases were dismissed. At the same time, we asked the assistance of the church and other concerned persons in our community to help us meet the basic needs of the prisoners as there were many who had no mats to sleep on; many sleep on bare cement floors with no shirts on for lack of adequate clothing. We could not just close our eyes to the overcrowded cells, with very poor ventilation. In fact, the cells smelt of foul urine and sweat, and it was very nauseatic to go from one cell to another to interview prisoners who were beckoning to us to come. With many persons and clubs coming up to assist, we formally organized the CIVIC ASSISTANCE TEAM to take care of the prisoners basic needs.

As I did boy scouting and social work activities in jail, I was criticized by some of my colleagues for doing activities which are far from my position as the chapter’s legal aid officer. My president told me to concentrate on pure legal work and leave the social work to the Ministry of Social Services and Development, an agency of the government. However, we could not wait until such office would do its task. We saw a wasteage of human energy in jail, men and women doing nothing except to eat, stand, sit, walk and stare at blank walls every day, waiting for their deliverance from bondage.

As I was restricted to move as the legal aid director and do more social work, I sought the help of the women lawyers and brought to their attention the plight of the prisoners in our jail centers, the immediate assistance that they need and the conditions they are in. The women lawyers responded. Hence, I continued my work in the name of the association of lawyers in Cebu, locally known as the FIDA or the FEDERACION INTERNACIONAL DEABOGADAS. We also asked the help of the local educational institutions and other clubs to do rehabilitation activities, like handicraft making, literacy classes, farming, printing, and others.

Later, I could not cope up with the growing number of cases referred to me regarding abuses by some men in the military, plus cases of prisoners in jail. I sought the help of other lawyers who are just too willing to help, but on one condition, that they should not go to jail. They will only appear in courts. Hence, I sought again the assistance of local universities to give us legal aid volunteers. Many law students, political science students and social work interns responded. To make them effective, we conducted para-legal seminars and trained them how to make follow ups. We organized aid volunteers from among the community based groups and we meet regularly in the office. Thus, we formed three services, namely THE DOCUMENTATION AND RESEARCH GROUP; THE LEGAL SERVICES GROUP AND THE CIVIC ASSISTANCE GROUP. With 23 community based organizations working hand in hand, we organized the FREE LAVA; and this was still under the umbrella of Cebu City Chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

The linkages we have with the community based groups in the LAVA set up drew attention from other countries in ASIA. We had visitors coming from Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States who came to the City of Cebu to observe.

In 1981, the martial law was lifted in our country. Despite the lifting, we still have some policemen and soldiers in our area who still had that martial law mentality and who believe that the military is supreme. Thus, our office has always been flooded with requests for assistance to help the victims of abuse by some men in uniform. We met prisoners who still  suffer from the agonies of maltreatment, either committed during their arrests or during custodial interrogations. As we listened to the agonies of the victims, to the cries of the widows and orphans, we became angry, too, and sometimes, we felt like fighting the mighty Goliath with a toothpick.

Believing in the inherent goodness of man, and strongly believing that maltreatment and abuses are not mandated or directed from above, we sought series of dialogues with the top  ranking officials of the military. Across the conference tables with the highest military official in our region, the regional commander and his station commanders, we presented the abuses committed by some of their men in the lower ranks. We brought with us the living victims of the abuses; we brought pictures along for those who could not come; we presented documents. In dialogues, we made the military understand the need to provide a forum of justice to the victims of abuses and the dangers our society would be in if disgusts are not attended to. We know that when a person is desperate, he knows no law. We want to live in an atmosphere of love and brotherhood. The top ranking officials understood our thrusts. Two days after that dialogue, our papers carried the headline a presidential order to oust the bad elements the undesirables from the military service. Hence, we encourage our people to come out and not to be afraid to denounce abuses of all kinds as we are willing to give our legal services for free.

Later, I felt a vacuum within me. I felt that something is lacking in what I do. While I help  victims of injustice, how about the criminally inclined? While we free the body from bondage, how about his soul?

Hence, in addition to what we have been doing, we inject rehabilitation through spiritual means, in addition to the existing civic assistance programs we already have in jail, like handicraft, farming, pig raising, literacy classes and boy scouting.

I formally organized the Prison Ministry of the Charismatic of Renewal, the biggest movement now going on in our country. I introduced the concept that a prison work is not only confined in jail centers, but it should also include activities to prevent if not minimize the entrance of people to go to jail, and to prevent, if not, minimize the return of the released prisoners to jail.

Hence, as parts of the crime prevention programs, we organize the poorest, the poor in our society, the slum dwellers, the vendors, the farmers, the laborers, the homeless people. We conduct seminars on human rights for them. We organize legal aid volunteers from among them and meet them regularly. We make them see that they could run to us for help if they are abused and harassed. We bring their gripes to the authorities in dialogues.

For our clients in jail, we regularly conduct spiritual and social activities. We treat their cases as caused. We walk back to the reasons why they are in jail.
Is it because of economic necessity that he is in? Is it because he is a victim of mistaken identity; of malicious prosecution to make it appear that crimes are solved or is he criminally inclined? Is he a drug addict because of his desire to seek happiness which his parents could not give? In our work, we discover that many prisoners are products of broken homes. Hence, we conduct dialogues with the parents.

With these things done which are far from my job as a lawyer in a legal aid office, I resigned from my post and registered the Free LAVA as an independent body from the integrated bar. More associations came in to help. We are now 28 under the umbrella of the Free LAVA doing separate, but coordinated services of crime prevention, legal assistance and rehabilitation.

We organize our clients in jail and help them have a governing body composed of rehabilitated inmates. With the approval of the jail management, the leaders council is now given a voice in our jail centers to police and supervise their own ranks.
As we could not do anything for minors to be separated from adults, because of the absence of a separate detention home, we trained the members of the council to become scoutmasters. Thus, we now have in Cebu the only boy scouting movement where the adult prisoners are the scoutmasters for the minor boy scouts thereat.

For the released prisoners, we follow them up with the help of volunteer workers. We assist them get small business loans equivalent to 15 or 20 US dollars payable in installments to start with. We know that the hardest thing for a released prisoner is to get a job.
We now are intensifying the organization of community scout troops of 32 young boys in the squatters areas. The idea is to give them income generating projects for the greatest enemies we have are crimes against property brought about by poverty.

Just last October, for the first time, the City of Cebu became the seat of the Asean law conference for the delegates to observe the LAVA programs. Visitors from Asian countries came.

The time frame given to me is too short for me to enumerate the activities of the Free LAVA. There are still many things that we do. Let me mention in passing that in our work we find it futile to be criticizing without offering alternatives. We find it useless to curse the dark. It is always better to light a candle. We have proven countless times that man is by nature good. In our work we see the beauty of reconciliation rather than making direct confrontation.

Thank you so much to all of you especially the members of the Right Livelihood Foundation. May your tribe increase!

Winefreda Geonzon Foundation Inc
Villalon Drive
East Capitol Hills
Cebu City 6000