Driven by hunger, urban poor go out for rumored relief drive but are haled into court instead

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Driven by hunger, urban poor go out for rumored relief drive but are haled into court instead
In this photo posted on April 6, 2020, Quezon City police officers arrived at the Kusinang Bayan program at Sitio San Roque to tear props and materials calling for government assistance, according to Save San Roque.
Save San Roque Facebook page

Part 2 of a two-part feature.

Read Part 1 here.

MANILA, Philippines — The nearly one year of lockdown in the Philippines has seen people who were on the streets to protest, or to seek or give out relief, hauled to police stations. Some were detained, others released on bail or for further investigation.

Many of them have been cleared, although the trauma of arrest and the experience of an unjust prosecution posed a threat to their rights, lawyer Minnie Lopez told Philstar.com.

For 21 residents of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City who, driven by hunger, went out onto the streets on April 1 and were arrested and detained for days, the fight continues in court.

The 21 urban poor residents will be arraigned on late April, more than a year since they were arrested.

“For simply standing along EDSA and waiting for food aid (ayuda) that was promised to them during the Enhanced Community Quarantine, the Petitioners herein, who count themselves among the poorest country’s poor, were arrested and now stand to be tried and convicted for crimes that carry stiff penalties consisting of imprisonment for several years and fines in the millions of pesos,” the Petition for Certiorari they filed last week read.

Their lawyers are fighting to have the charges against them dropped.

They face five before the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 38: “Non-cooperation” under Republic Act 11332 or the mandatory reporting of notifiable diseases, Batas Pambansa 880 or the Public Assembly Act, disobedience under Art. 151 of the Revised Penal Code and two under the RA 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act—signed a week before they were arrested.

‘Will I be jailed?’

Lawyer Kristina Conti told Philstar.com the court cases have been causing the 21 sleepless nights for in the past months.

“Beyond whether they have livelihoods or they would miss work, the fear and worry weigh more. That’s a lot of sleepless nights that you have a case that you keep thinking about what will happen. 'Will I be jailed?'” she said, partly in Filipino.

She added that the 21 are from different homes and have different circumstances too.

“It is very difficult to figure out the schedule of 21 persons who, at the same time, are worried about whether they will be jailed on top of worrying about whether they will be able to eat that day,” she said.

SPECIAL REPORT: Coping in quarantine: A hard time for all but inequality makes it worse

‘Going outside, especially for food, is not a crime’

The San Roque 21, through their lawyers, failed to have the charges junked in through a Motion to Quash the Information. As things stand, their arraignment will proceed by the end of April, but they have also sought relief from the Quezon City Regional Trial Court through a Petition for Certiorari, or by asking the court to review the lower court's decision.

In their petition, their lawyers said the MeTC junked their bid for the case dismissal as it upheld the validity of their warrantless arrest.

“Note that at the very least while the rest of the residents of Metro Manila, other than essential personnel, were directed to stay at home through various issuances of the President of the Republic, and in view of the strict implementation of the ECQ, based on records, the accused appear to be outside of their respective residences during their warrantless arrests,” the petition quoting the MeTC order read.

But their lawyers argued: “[G]oing outside one’s residence is not a crime, such that anyone who does so—especially for a necessity as basic as food—cannot and should not be subject to arrest. No law makes it so. No exigency justifies it.”

Even during the strictest ECQ, people were allowed to leave home for essential trips like getting food or medicine.

The San Roque 21 went out of their homes and onto EDSA after hearing, through word of mouth, that they would be given food. At that time, the entire island of Luzon had been placed on lockdown, mass transportation was halted, business were closed, and the distribution of aid that the government promised was marred by incomplete lists, logistical problems, delayed funding, and even corruption.

“If they were on the street to receive food as the witness testifies, their arrest is illegal. If they were to participate in a rally, as the prosecution claims, then it would still be illegal as the SC held that ‘blanket prohibitions on the right to assemble are void and unconstitutional,’” the pleading further read.

A witness in the case told the court that the accused were not involved in any organized mass action when they were arrested: They gathered along EDSA to receive food aid that they thought they would receive.

The witness was asked why residents still went to the area in the afternoon even though police arrested their fellow residents in the morning. The witness told the court: “We really had nothing left to eat."

Weng Macatao, Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte's chief of staff, said in a phone call with Philstar.com on the day of arrests that support had already been extended to the community, although not all residents had received aid yet.

"They were already given relief. That's why the barangay captain was in tears. Because aid was given to that area but he admitted that not everyone has been given the aid," Macatao said in Filipino.

SPECIAL REPORT: How community-led projects kept the urban poor afloat amid COVID-19

A ccording to a report by alternative news outfit PinoyWeekly, a party-list group arrived the afternoon after the arrests to distribute food aid. The distribution, where PinoyWeekly noted that physical distancing and other safety protocols were not observed, was done with police support.

Bayanihan law's penal provision

The San Roque 21 are also facing two charges for violation of Section 6 of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. Those found guilty of violations under this provision may face imprisonment of two months, or a fine of from P10,000 to P1 million, or both.

The prosecution alleged in the Information or charge sheet that the 21 violated Section 6(h) of the law for impeding access to roads during their “rally or demonstration” along a part of EDSA,  “despite the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine of the national government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A separate charge was also filed for an alleged violation of Section 6(f) of the law, accusing them of having “created, perpetrated and spread false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis during their rally or demonstration… that such mass gathering conducted by the accused having no valid or beneficial effect on the population with the clear objective of promoting chaos, panic, anarchy, fear and confusion, taking advantage of the current situation to prey on the public.”

The defense lawyers are saying that the law has been repealed, but the MeTC said it merely expired following its own sunset provision, and because of this, “the offense, allegedly committed by the accused, still exists since they allegedly violated RA 11469 during its existence.”

During the Senate deliberations on the government stimulus package plan and on the extension of the Bayanihan law, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the Bayanihaw law was crafted to address a public health emergency and not as a penal statute or to punish crimes. Despite that, alleged violators were “treated like criminals.”

He said then: “The quarantine violators are motivated and driven by reason of hunger, income, not because they are criminals.”

‘Mass gatherings’

The lawyers also said the arrests would not have happened if not for the two resolutions, one from the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Infectious Diseases and one from the Office of the President, that, they said “imposed a blanket prohibition on mass gatherings.”

These directives from the executive branch are unconstitutional, they told the court. The lawyers added that the Supreme Court has long held, in Primicias v. Fuguso, Reyes v. Bagatsing, Bayan v. Ermita and David v. Macapagal that “blanket prohibitions on the right to assemble are void and unconstitutional.”

“No consideration as to time, place, nor manner is given. For being absolute bans on the constitutional right to assemble, these Executive acts must be held unconstitutional and declared null and void,” they added.

The lawyers told the court that a contrary ruling would have far-reaching effects:

the Executive will be permitted to impose absolute bans on public assemblies; police may effect warrantless arrests on persons participation in such peaceful assemblies or on people who are merely waiting for promised food aid; motions to quash will lose its viability as a remedy for citizens who assert their right against unreasonable searches and seizures; prosecutors may file informations without the requisite authority; and the final death knell of our dying democracy will have been rung.

While the court has yet to decide on their Petition for Certiorari and, if trial continues, they may yet have the charges against them dismissed, the 21 will have spent months in uncertainty and anxiety on top of the hunger that led them to go out on the streets in the first place.

Disclosure: Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte is a shareholder of Philstar Global Corp., which operates digital news outlet Philstar.com. This article was produced following editorial guidelines.

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