Part 1 of a two-part feature.
MANILA, Philippines — In nearly a year of the Philippines being under lockdown, Filipinos have had to face both the fear of being infected with the novel coronavirus as well as the threat of arrests over quarantine protocols.
On the eve of the community quarantine in Metro Manila, Police Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas—since named Philippine National Police chief—committed the 40,000-strong Metro Manila police force to man the boundaries of the National Capital Region and added a threat: “If guidelines have already been passed and it’s been disseminated, those who will violate will be arrested.”
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said then, March 14, that arrests can only be made if a person assaults, slanders or bribes the law enforcers.
Two days later, however, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered stricter lockdown. Under the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, Guevarra said that violators of quarantine protocols may be arrested for disobedience to authorities under Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code and, “considering the gravity of the present situation,” for violating Republic Act 11332.
Republic Act 11332 is the “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.”
Updated numbers on arrests have yet to be made available but data from the PNP showed that from March 17 to Nov. 14, 2020, there 538,577people "accosted" for quarantine violations, such as disobedience and curfew violations. Of these, 185,471 were given a warning and 218,808 were fined.
There have been 134,298 quarantine violators haled to court. Of these, 363 were still detained as of Nov. 14, 2020, while 38,291 were detained and then went through inquest proceedings. Another 96,007 were released after the regular filing of complaints.
Among those arrested were relief workers in Marikina and volunteers in Norzagaray, Bulacan, Pride protesters in Manila and jeepney drivers protesting on Labor Day, as well as anti-terrorism law petitioners in Cebu and urban poor workers in Quezon City.
At least one political figure was sued, but Sen. Koko Pimentel was later cleared of quarantine breach by no less than the National Prosecution Service as it also narrowed the scope of RA 11332 that police had often used against people who were not senators of the Republic.
The NPS held that the reporting reuirement under the said law is only for public health authorities.
In the same resolution, the prosecution dismissed the “non-cooperation” complaint against the senator, saying he left the hospital after learning he was infected with the coronavirus.
On Labor Day in 2020, ten volunteers for a feeding program — seven of whom are jeepney drivers who lost their livelihood due to the lockdown — were arrested and slapped with complaints of violation of RA 11332, disobedience under Art. 151 or RPC, and Batas Pambansa 880 or the Public Assembly Act.
A month later, police arrested 20 participants in a Pride protest against the anti-terrorism bill for the same complaints.
The two groups went through inquest proceedings to determine the validity of warrantless arrests and determine whether charges should be filed in court—but prosecutors instead went into a full blown preliminary investigation instead, which allowed the #Marikina10 and #Pride20 to temporarily walk free.
Lawyer Minnie Lopez, counsel for the two groups, told Philstar.com that there had always been the fear of contracting the coronavirus while her clients were in detention.
“Because they were arrested during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a real and imminent fear and threat of contracting the virus while in detention,” Lopez said.
“This is actually one of the concerns we raised with the PNP-Marikina and the [Manila Police District] when they were arrested. Many supporters provided PPEs and (rubbing) alcohol while they were in detention,” she added.
Despite the Department of the Interior and Local Government’s claim that jails under the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, are “100-percent safe” from COVID-19, the coronavirus still infected detainees in the bureau's cramped and overcrowded facilities.
The BJMP logged 1,987 cases among persons deprived of liberty, although numbers went down to 88 active cases in December, with five fatalities.
It even came to a point that the DILG, last July, had to seek help from the Supreme Court to order that newly-arrested persons be brought to police station holding cells to stop the spread of COVID-19 in BJMP jails.
But even with the PNP’s reques and on the same day that the Supreme Court granted their request, Duterte gave fresh orders for police not to hesitate to arrest those without masks in public places.
On top of the fear of contracting COVID-19, there was trauma too, especially under the Duterte administration, where arrests have been rampant, the rights lawyer said.
“I believe that every person who went through detention experiences trauma at one point. Especially under this administration where [arrests are] very rampant, and with impunity, trumped-up charges are filed against innocent persons,” Lopez said.
She added her clients had no choice but to look for funds to post bail “even if the pieces of the evidence presented by the police were very, very weak.”
The two groups did not suffer much in terms of losing income while under detention — although some of 'Marikina 10' already lost their livelihood before they were arrested as jeepneys were earlier prohibited from plying the roads.
“It is not the issue of whether or not they have lost their income during the time that they were detained and right thereafter. The more pressing issue is that their detention and threat of being unjustly prosecuted have curtailed and has become a constant threat to their rights to security and liberty,” Lopez continued.
Even with dismissal of the non-cooperation complaints under RA 11332, Justice Secretary Guevarra did not take back his earlier statement that the law could be used against quarantine violators.
“Complaints are resolved and cases are decided on the basis of facts specifically pertaining to each of them. Some complaints (or) cases may fall squarely under 11332, some may not,” he told reporters in January, after the NPS junked raps against Sen. Pimentel.
But a retraction may not necessarily deter arrests, rights lawyer Lopez said.
“From my experience as a human rights lawyer, even a statement of this nature from the DOJ would not curtail or deter law enforcement from arresting alleged quarantine violators,” she said.
“RA 11332 is just one law. If law enforcers are bent on going after those who are exercising their rights to free speech and expression—which is, sadly and alarmingly the trend now—they would always find ways and laws that they can weaponized to file baseless chargers against critics,” she added.
The rights lawyer however acknowledged that there are prosecutors “who are objective, reasonable and courageous enough to render resolutions and decisions based on the facts, the law/s and merits of the complaints that are brought before them.”
She continued they can only wish that there are more of them who “decide [in a just and fair manner], who will never bow down to any and all forms of political pressure.”