LGUs have leeway in enforcing quarantine, but no license for cruel punishments

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LGUs have leeway in enforcing quarantine, but no license for cruel punishments
Soldiers stand guard as they wait inside the military headquarters to be deployed in major thoroughfares, in Manila on March 14, 2020.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of the Interior and Local Government said it will warn local governments that use non-standard—even cruel and unusual—punishments in enforcing curfews meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, that these are not allowed.

The DILG also said that these penalties should be seen on a "case-to-case" basis.

President Rodrigo Duterte on March 16 ordered about half of the country’s population to stay home in an unprecedented move to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, which has infected over 1,400 people in the country. Initially just covering Luzon, local government units from the provincial to town and municipal levels in the Visayas and Mindanao have also imposed restrictions on their residents.

Since the month-long enhanced community quarantine began, local governments have drawn up their own ordinances, implementing curfew in their jurisdictions and imposing penalties for violators.

Last week, watchdog Human Rights Watch said quarantine measures must be in line with international human rights standards.

“Police and local officials should respect the rights of those they arrest for violating curfew and other public health regulations, which can be done while still allowing the Philippine government to take appropriate measures to combat COVID-19,” Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director, said.

The DILG has vowed the government will continue to uphold human rights in its implementation of far-reaching measures to arrest the spread of the contagion, directly contradicting an incorrect and wrongheaded assertion by an undersecretary, Martin Diño, that rights are suspended during a state of national emergency.

"We have been repeatedly saying that and, most importantly, we have been reminding our local government officials and we continue to receive reports from different parts of the country and we encourage the public to report if there are abusibve police, barangay or LGU officials. Report them to us and the DILG will act accordingly," DILG Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said in an interview with Philstar.com

He added that penalties for breaking curfew or other quarantine measures depends on what is written down in a particular LGU's ordinance, which is passed by a council and signed by the local chief executive.

"Some of them have fines, some of them have imprisonment. You have to look at the ordinance itself because we do not have a national curfew...you have to look at the ordinance if you want to find out. If the penalties imposed are within the bounds of law, then you have to follow that."

In a March 16 address, President Rodrigo Duterte, who declared the enhanced community quarantine across Luzon, stressed that barangay chairperons would be responsible for enforcing the quarantine. He also said that they should look after their constituents.

"Do not be afraid. I am telling you, do not be afraid," the president said in Filipino in his address.

"And if your barangay captain is lazy, I will go after him," he also said.

Some LGU officials, however, seem to have taken Duterte's message to mean they are to enforce quarantine measures by any means necessary. 

Locked up in a dog cage

Two weeks ago, village officials in Santa Cruz, Laguna locked up five curfew violators in a dog cage after they were seen walking to a friend’s house late at night.

Local officials of Barangay Gatid tried to justify their actions, saying the curfew violators—two of whom are minors—had been verbally abusive to the barangay watchmen who caught them. The curfew violators were also told to go home but they allegedly refused.

The Laguna Police Office said the curfew violators were brought to the barangay hall where they met barangay chairman Frederick Ambrocio, who allegedly threatened to shoot them if they do not go inside the dog cage and stay there for about 30 minutes.

Ambrocio, the barangay chairman, faces a police complaint for violating the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act as well as grave threat and coercion.

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno has stressed that “minors cannot be penalized for a curfew violation” under the Comprehensive Juvenile Justice Act. He, and other rights advocates, have acknowledged that restrictions like curfews and the community quarantine are justified, but abuses are not.

Inside a coffin

A video that has been spreading online shows a youth, presumably a curfew violator, lying inside a closed coffin. Another person, presumably also a curfew violator, can be seen sitting in front of the coffin.

"So, you see, townmates, he is still alive but we are holding a funeral for him. So, I don't know if you'll get the message," the person taking the video is heard saying off camera.

Malaya said putting violators inside a cage or a coffin as a form of punishment is not allowed.

Malaya said: "Putting people in coffins, locking them up in a dog cage—which we have seen in one barangay and that the barangay officials or barangay captain has already apologized for—is not allowed. That will fall under cruel and inhuman punishment."

He adds that even if a local government ordinance says violators will be put in a coffin or in a cage, it is still void.

"And if it isn't in the ordinance, then it is even more prohibited and they are not allowed to do that. That is violation of human rights."

Malaya said the agency's policy is to warn local officials that these cruel punishments are not allowed.

"Even in the time of calamity, emergency or crisis, rule of law remains. The rule of law is the bedrock of the society," he added.

Under the heat of the sun

Officials of Barangay San Isidro in Parañaque also drew flak for making violators of the city's 24-hour curfew sit on chairs in a basketball court  under the heat of the sun. The penalty was not included in Parañaque's curfew ordinance.

The Facebook post of  Barangay San Isidro chairman Noel Japlos, which has since been deleted, read in Filipino: “Those caught for violating the curfew will be brought here.”

In an interview, Japlos said the move was “not punishment,” saying there was not enough space in the barangay hall.

“We placed them in an open area for social distancing. We do not have any punishment for curfew (violators),” he said, adding authorities merely verified the names of those apprehended.

Asked about the punishment, Malaya acknowledged Japlos's explanation. "We have to take it in a case-to-case basis," he said.

Those who were apprehended for violating curfew in Sampaloc, Manila were placed in a covered court in Lacson. Arrested were around 70 curfew violators. They were released the next day.

HRW said arresting people for curfew violations to enforce social distancing is counterproductive if detainees are placed in crowded detention facilities where the virus could spread easily. 

Hitting residents to enforce curfews

A police official was caught in an ABS-CBN News video last week hitting a resident of the Muslim Town compound in Quiapo, Manila with a stick while shouting expletives.

The man presented a quarantine pass but the officer identified as Lt. Col. Reynaldo Magdaluyo, commander of the Sta. Cruz police station, insisted people cannot leave their homes except at certain times of the day. The police officer can also be heard on video saying people who leave their homes would be shot.

A city ordinance passed on March 14 bans people from leaving their homes from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The Philippine National Police ordered the Manila Police District to investigate the incident.

"There are many hard-headed people and I can only imagine how Lt. Col. Magdaluyo must have felt. But the PNP leadership will not tolerate this action and it should not be done," Police Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, PNP deputy chief for operations, said in Filipino in a radio interview.

The PNP is an attached agency of the DILG.

Speaking in general terms, Malaya said barangay and other officials have to peform a balancing act in enforcing quarantine measures: "There's the question of imposing the law and there's also the quation of how to punish them." — with Jonathan de Santos



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