The young Arthur was a bright and diligent young boy. The young Arthur used his spare hours after school to shine shoes and augment the family’s small income. He was a working student throughout most of his school years. In college, he worked as part time bookkeeper and government checker of moviehouses. He worked for ten years as a civilian employee at the Philippine Military Academy and for another five years as clerk at the auditor’s office in Baguio City.
Always hungry for knowledge, Arthur was a voracious book-reader. As a student, he spent hard-earned money to buy pocket books and read them between lessons and work hours. He read Shakespeare and the Bible. He pored through at least three newspapers everyday until diabetes destroyed his eyesight.
He took the bar in 1976 when he was 34 years old, and got the third highest grade that year.
Knowing poverty first-hand, Arthur often gave free or minimal legal services to poor clients. Destitute clients trooped to his office, his wife Nida recalled. Arthur began to offer his services to victims of the Marcos dictatorship not long after he passed the bar. He became one of the most active members of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in Baguio City. Later he served as FLAG coordinator for the Benguet province and regional chairperson for Northern Luzon. He was counsel for nearly all political detainees in Northern Luzon, including many student activists, tribal leaders, farmers, and two fellow lawyers who struggled against the Marcos dictatorship in the province of Abra. He handled the defense of students and activists jailed for rebellion, and prosecuted cases filed by members of rural communities against abusive soldiers.
He also was active with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), becoming president of the local chapter and executive director of its legal aid committee from 1983 to 1985. During his incumbency the legal aid committee won a national award for being a model legal aid program in the Philippines.
He was member of the Lawyers’ Committee for International Human Rights, based in New York, USA.
Arthur and fellow rights advocates established the Northern Luzon Human Rights Organization (NL-HRO) in 1984. Arthur became its chair. He helped organize other human rights groups throughout Northern Luzon.
Arthur was appointed deputy commissioner of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights (PCHR) under the late Senator Jose W. Diokno. His stint in government was short-lived because members of the commission resigned in protest over continuing military abuses.
To use the new democratic space, Arthur started a column titled “The Occasional Chair” for the local newspaper Gold Ore. He used this space mostly as a forum to raise awareness about human rights and the human rights violations that were still happening in Northern Luzon. In 1988, he took up the case of farmers massacred by soldiers in Nueva Vizcaya. He testified in 1989 before the Senate Committee on Human Rights about government abuses persisting in Northern Luzon despite the lifting of martial law.
Arthur believed that friends, not money, made a person rich. “Why look for material wealth”, he would say, “if one had enough friends?” Arthur treated many of his clients as friends, and had been known to offer temporary lodgings to clients, including former political prisoners, or families of clients, or even give some of them transportation money.
In 1991, disaster fell on Arthur and his family when the big earthquake that damaged many parts of Luzon wrecked his house and thieves stole the rest. Suddenly Arthur was poor as a rat, but he remained undaunted. “We will survive this,” he told his wife. Arthur’s friends proved their worth on that occasion because many came to help his family deal with the disaster.
In the 1990s, Arthur had to fight a war on another front as he fell ill with diabetes. “We will fight this,” he told his wife once more. He did fight the disease until the end of 1993, when he died quietly in his bed the day after Christmas.
Relatives, neighbors, colleagues from the Knights of Columbus, and friends in the human rights movements all gave tribute to this man’s humanity and his commitment to human rights. He was alternately described as bright, witty, having phenomenal memory, a sharp-tongued lawyer, a sweet husband and a loving father, and a person who gave himself way beyond the call of duty.
GALACE, Arthur Erfe
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