Public urged to document attacks, abuses during Luzon lockdown

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Public urged to document attacks, abuses during Luzon lockdown
Law and medical practitioners said public citizens should document instances of abuse amid the enhanced community quarantine in order to seek accountability from public officials later on. 
The STAR / Edd Gumban

MANILA, Philippines — Lawyers and doctors are voicing concerns over alleged abuses during the enhanced community quarantine hoisted over Luzon and urged citizens to document these to eventually hold those responsible accountable.

In an online press conference organized by the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND), former Supreme Court spokesperson and Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) lawyer Theodore Te along with other human rights workers assessed the government’s response in the one month since the quarantine was put in place. 

READ: All barangay checkpoints now under PNP

President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this week appealed for citizens to discipline themselves in observing social distancing, warning that he would issue orders for military and police enforcement that he likened to Martial Law. 

Throughout the past month, there have been cases of abuse towards healthcare workers, prompting local governments to pass ordinances against discrimination. In Sultan Kudarat, a nurse was attacked by five men who threw bleach in his face.

Filipino nurses have also reported being harassed by their neighbors, some of whom even banned them from their homes.

RELATED: Is this martial law? Lawyers' union answers questions on quarantine

While Te maintained that cases cannot be filed against the government as a whole, the lawyer urged the public to continue documenting cases of abuse. This, he said, would ensure that evidence-based cases could be filed at a later time to keep erring public officials accountable.

‘Little things that add up’

Nemuel Fajutagana of the Medical Action Group, at the same online briefing, said the COVID-19 outbreak and quarantine has brought about what he said is learned helplessness. He said this it is when vulnerable sectors feel that only the government can help that they are most susceptible to abuse. 

"This is where abuse comes out, when you believe that you can do nothing and you become more vulnerable. We have to be very careful," he said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

Te pointed out that rather than tag Filipinos as "stubborn", the government should recognize that minor inefficiencies in, for example, government response, can add up. 

READ: PNP: 'No difference' in quarantine implementation if military takes over

For instance, he pointed out that the administration's social amelioration program handing out aid to vulnerable families first required notarization from applicants despite courts being physically closed. 

Despite this, the lawyer maintained that the stand of FLAG is that cases could not be filed against the government due to the current circumstances. 

"From the legal side, what we're looking at is [that] there are more important things right now. We're going back to basics here after all. That's what we're focusing on: talking about the law, human rights, and after the pandemic, people will answer for abuses," he said. 

"If there are in fact any breaches, maybe we can deal with that later on. Because what's more important right now is for health workers to keep themselves intact while they serve."

"The government can look at it that way. I think enforcing the civil service rule very strictly and punishing you, that might just be more counterproductive. Rather than boost morale, it will deter people," he added. 

Extraordinary times

Te said citizens and the justice sector alike should look at the situation as an "extraordinary" one, which should be applied across a number of sectors in society. 

Fajatunaga echoed this sentiment, saying that the COVID-19 outbreak could last longer than the government's current timeline predicts. 

"I'm not confident in saying we're ready unless the [Department of Health] says we have tested enough and that we can see patterns," he said.

Asked about the ramifications of the month-long period between having just three confirmed cases and the sudden influx, Fajutagana says, "We have not even seen the plateau. We might see more in the next few weeks. That's why testing is so important."

READ: Duterte asks public for 'discipline' in following quarantine rules

At its core, Te said, that the government's approach should have the interests of people at heart, especially amid fears expressed by many that they could be arrested due to the presence of police and armed forces implementing the chief executive's enhanced community quarantine. 

"This applies not only to point of arrests, but also relating to calls of early release of some prisoners and humanitarian treatment of inmates because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, the justice sector takes on a more unified approach," he said.  

"More than anything else, what's important is that the fears of people are approached [and acknowledged.] If they're arrested, they should know that there are legal remedies."

"Their right to access, to justice, should not be denied. It’s important that people know what they can and can’t do. More than ever, what is needed here is access to certain communication channels," he added. 

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