Coronavirus Updates: Don’t let police abuse become normal

Published 9:00 AM, April 30, 2020
Updated 9:35 PM, May 08, 2020

(This newsletter was emailed to Rappler subscribers on April 29, 2020.)

In its response to the novel coronavirus crisis, the Philippines has made it to a global list. It is among the 15 countries in state of emergency where allegations of police brutality have been “deemed most troubling,” reports Reuters, citing the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

There we are, along with Cambodia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Hungary, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.

Among countries that have enforced lockdowns – euphemistically called by the authorities as “community quarantine – the Philippines has apparently made the most the number of curfew-related apprehensions the past month: 120,000 persons.

“A main concern on exceptional emergency measures is what has been described as a toxic lockdown culture in some countries,” said Georgette Gagnon, UN Human Rights Office’s director of field operations. “As the High Commissioner highlighted, police and other security forces are using excessive and sometimes deadly force to enforce lockdowns and curfews.”

As recently as the first two days of this week (and we’re only halfway through the week), we reported at least two incidents where police or local government workers deputized by the police displayed abusive behavior.

On Sunday, April 26, a homeowner in the affluent Dasmariñas Village in Makati City was tackled to the ground on his own driveway by a policeman after he (the resident) insulted what appeared to be an initially courteous cop. The cop had come, upon the request of the village chairperson, to deal with the household whose helper was watering the plants on their front yard without a mask. But because he had had enough (“Napuno na ako”), he assaulted the man and tried to arrest him without a warrant.

On Monday, April 27, personnel of Oplan Task Force Disiplina of the Quezon City mayor’s office repeatedly hit with sticks and dragged a fish vendor along Panay Avenue because he wasn’t wearing a face mask and he didn’t have a quarantine pass. The young man was turned over to a nearby police station and remains in jail.

Between those two widely-covered episodes, photo journalist Vincent Go posted on Faceboook about how a man who earned a living collecting recyclable scraps was halted by personnel of Caloocan City’s Department of Public Safety and Traffic Management. They confiscated his kariton and asked him to pay P1,500 to get it back. They confiscated his scraps when he couldn’t pay the full amount, Vincent said.

In the streets and in private residences, authorities have been emboldened – foremost, by President Rodrigo Duterte, who’s given orders to kill quarantine violators.

So there was the Quezon City policeman, shooting dead an unarmed former soldier with mental health issues – because the latter got out of his house during quarantine.

And there was the Taguig City cop, who berated security guards and brandished a gun inside a posh condominium complex, where diplomats, lawmakers, and big businessmen reside. The mayor told them to check on a few residents who supposedly violated physical distancing rules by staying in a large pool without face masks.

The same mayor has ordered joggers arrested for breaking quarantine rules.

In Cebu City, the mayor was offended by a sarcastic Facebook post by a film writer he personally knew – that, if an entire sitio (something like a hamlet) of 9,000 residents is “presumed infected” (the words of the local health office), then the city was “now the epicenter in the whole solar system.”

The irony here was, the post only had 4 likes – until the mayor reposted it with a threat that the writer would be “thrown into prison” for allegedly spreading disinformation, and thus became viral. The writer, Bambi Beltran, said she was handcuffed to a chair, then to a bed, overnight because authorities couldn’t immediately process her bail.

With the lockdown of Metro Manila and some parts of Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao extended until May 15, and the Philippine National Police declaring it would begin arresting lockdown violators without warning, citizens must be aware that this is breeding ground for what UN human rights chief Bachelet calls a “human rights disaster.”

Already, we hear of a city mayor declaring that curfew violators would be automatically handcuffed, or a governor telling constituents that he would ask police and soldiers to enter private subdivisions to go after quarantine violators the way they do in the streets of ordinary barangays.

Even before the extension, we had been getting reports of curfew violators being thrown into jail, and stay there for days, even weeks, because fiscals’ offices are closed for inquest proceedings, and courts are closed to process bail.

And jails, crowded and unsanitary, are a “ticking time bomb” for coronavirus infections. To date, there are more than 200 inmates and jail personnel who have been infected.

Netizens ask, why not just send the quarantine and curfew violators home? Or if they don’t have face masks, why not give them one to use? There are more humane, less emotionally taxing, and definitely non-violent way to maintain peace and order – if authorities would only choose them, and if only we would consider our neighbors less as threats to our personal safety and more as fellow citizens just trying to survive these unusual, difficult times.

Bachelet reminded governments:“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield…. They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reminded “civil society organizations and the private sector” of the “essential roles” they play in this crisis: “Civic space and press freedom are critical…. And in all we do, let's never forget: the threat is the virus, not people.’”

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