Laurente, or Larry, Ilagan was born in old Manila’s Sampaloc district, but the family moved to Davao in the 1950s and settled there, where Larry’s father developed his law practice while his mother worked in government as teacher and then supervisor. Larry was a brilliant student, taking all of his schooling at the Ateneo de Davao. In 1968, while still a law student, he married a former college classmate, Luzviminda (“Inday”), by then a teacher, and henceforth started a family.
After Larry finished law (top of his graduating class), he joined his father’s law office and soon proved himself an outstanding corporate lawyer. Activism was ripening in Davao City but the couple, who had many friends in the activist movement and were both sympathetic to the various issues being raised by them, were busy earning a living and rearing a family to become involved.
Larry had been in practice barely a few months when Marcos declared martial law. The mass arrests that followed Marcos’ crackdown included activists in Larry’s neighborhood and Larry was asked to provide pro bono legal counsel to them. He was soon the legal counsel to more and more arrested activists, the only lawyer in Davao City to risk his career so during those early years of the dictatorship. His wife remembers the experience of strangers knocking at their house in the dead of the night, seeking “the lawyer who can help.”
Around 1975 the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines under the Association of the Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines established a regional office in Davao City, and Larry became the TFDP’s lawyer. Later, he also joined the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG.) Both gave him additional authority and support for his growing human rights work.
As the political situation in Davao City did not ease up, the resistance to the dictatorship spread to the schools and communities and in the churches. Military raids of villages grew more often, which swelled the number of people filling up the martial law prisons. Larry handled cases of bombing victims as well and prosecuting military abuses, including military operations to drive people out of their villages, then called “hamletting,” after the American practice in Vietnam.
Larry was often overworked with his human rights lawyering, but he slowly gained influence among his colleagues, particularly the young lawyers. He showed them it was possible to provide good and intelligent counsel to those who worked for justice and other political issues surrounding martial law. He was FLAG Mindanao coordinator for some time.
Even before the Aquino assassination in 1983, and certainly to a much greater extent after that, Larry became committed to the struggle against the dictatorship. He had become a member of the Justice for Aquino Justice for All movement, the Nationalist Alliance for Justice, Freedom and Democracy, a broad and nationwide organization; and then the Coalition for the Restoration of Democracy (CORD). He also helped convene many protest groups in Davao, including the Lihuk Hugpong Alang sa Katungod, the Anti-Dictatorship Movement, the Mindanao Nationalist and Democratic Opposition, and the Concerned Lawyers Union of Mindanao (COLUMN). Larry was appointed president of the Davao chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, by then quite critical of the Marcos regime. He also chaired the IBP chapter’s human rights committee, even as he continued to provide legal counsel to organizations like the TFDP and the Mindanao-Sulu Secretariat for Social Action (MISSA).
His reputation in Mindanao spread as a fearless fighter of the Marcos dictatorship, but most especially as a hardworking and committed human rights lawyer who often risked his own safety, traveling on his own on little-traversed roads, to counsel martial law victims and their families.
By 1985, Davao City, much like the entire country, was in turmoil. Larry was in the thick of the protest actions which eventually paralyzed economic activities not only in the city but all over Mindanao island. A Welgang Bayan was called on May 1, 1985, and local support for it was very strong. Davao was simply exploding with anger against the Marcos regime.
A few days later, the 5th of May, Larry, resting at a coffee shop after attending a court hearing, was himself arrested and brought to nearby Camp Catitipan. Two colleagues, Attys. Antonio Arellano and Marcos Risonar, were arrested the same day. Later the three lawyers were flown to the notorious Camp Bicutan in Manila, where they spent a few months’ incarceration with other political prisoners. They were returned to Camp Catitipan January of the following year and were determinedly hatching an escape plan when the “People Power Revolt” in February led to Marcos’ downfall. They were immediately released from their nine-months’ imprisonment.
An important footnote in Larry’s case is that it created a legal principle in the Philippines, termed the Ilagan Doctrine after Larry’s name, that remains in effect today. At that time in 1985, the then Supreme Court, acting on Larry’s petition for habeas corpus, ruled that habeas corpus may no longer be sought as a remedy against a warrantless arrest (the lawyers were arrested on the strength of a “PDA” or preventive detention action, without a court warrant), once charges have been filed in court against a person in custody. (Charges of rebellion were slapped against them days after their arrest.)
Larry filed his habeas corpus case against then defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and a number of other martial law administrators. Thus the case is now called in law Ilagan vs Enrile. The counsels for the three lawyers included such legal lights as the retired Chief Justice Roberto Conception and retired Associate Chief Justice Jose B. L. Reyes, Lorenzo Tañada, Wigberto Tañada, Joker Arroyo, Raul Roco, Haydee Yorac, Francisco Chavez, Fulgencio Factoran and Martiniano Vivo (a good number of those dead being now on the Bantayog heroes’ roster).
Renowned human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong who passed away recently said in 2011 that the Ilagan doctrine was a remnant of the Marcos dictatorship’s repressive tools, a tool used to carry out illegal arrests and arbitrary detention, tools that violate citizens’ constitutional and basic rights.
On Larry’s release in 1986, he resumed his legal practice, as well as his involvement in progressive politics. He refused offers for government positions, saying he was better able to serve out of it. He however accepted a temporary government job which he held only for a few months. He was diagnosed for cancer not long after he started as Davao City’s legal officer in 2001 and then died not long after.
When he had accepted that he was dying, Larry told his close friends that when he did go, he wanted no eulogies, not even a funeral march to mark his leaving. He wanted to leave quietly, he said. He died as he had wanted, but people he worked with and those he served had never forgotten this special Filipino, who often told aspiring law students that a lawyer could do only either of two things in life: to work to become rich, or to serve the ends of justice. “There’s nothing in between,” he said. It was obvious by how he led his life what choice he made.