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'San Roque 21' counsel sees long trial for urban poor nabbed seeking food aid

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
'San Roque 21' counsel sees long trial for urban poor nabbed seeking food aid
This file photo shows police and residents of Sitio San Roque before the dispersal and arrests on April 6, 2020.
News5 / Arnel Tugade

MANILA, Philippines — Millions of Metro Manila residents will again be confined to their homes this month as the Philippines battles high COVID-19 infections, resurfacing the anxieties of the 2020 lockdowns. But for the 21 residents of San Roque arrested when they only sought relief in April 2020, it has been a continuing nightmare.

More than a year since their arrest, urban poor residents of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City went to court last week for ther arraignment, lawyer Kristina Conti said.

"Remember the San Roque 21? Sixteen months after their arrest, they were arraigned before the QC Metropolitan Trial Court on five quarantine violations each," Conti, among their counsel, said on Saturday.

In a separate message to Philstar.com, she said the arraignment for the first batch of accused was on July 29 while the second batch may be arraigned, pending confirmation, on August 18.

She said the first batch of accused refused to enter a plea, which is allowed by court procedure. When this happens, the court enters a plea of "not guilty" on the behalf of the accused.

"The accused refused to enter a plea, considering their position that the charges should not have been filed in the first place — there is a pending issue on the quashal of Informations, which was denied by the MeTC and subject of a Petition for Certiorari (appeal) before the RTC QC. In essence, there is a question over the jurisdiction of the court," Conti explained.

SPECIAL REPORTS: Beyond arrest, raps: 'Quarantine violators' face trauma, COVID-19 risk tooDriven by hunger, urban poor go out for rumored relief drive but are haled into court instead

Long fight ahead

The San Roque 21 are among the first quarantine violators hauled to jail in the early days of last year's lockdown and now haled to court.

The past year for the San Roque 21 has been filled with anxiety and questions on whether they will be jailed and how they will feed their families, Conti said in an earlier Philstar.com report.

The trial will start on November 24. With the prosecution lining up 15 witnesses,  the defense lawyer sees a long trial for the San Roque 21.

Conti said they are still waiting for the resolution of their Petition for Certiorari before the higher court, but noted that "trial must proceed already."

RELATED: Urban poor community turns demolished homes into food security gardens

'All out prosecution'

But she noted that the legal fight continues because police, whom she said have probably been emboldened by President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh words for quarantine violators, “have doggedly pressed hard.”

Duterte told security officials in a speech the same week of the arrests that they can shoot quarantine violators who cause trouble and has repeatedly ordered more arrest for people not wearing face masks or otherwise disobeying quarantine rules.

"All out ang prosecution, they said there could be as many as 15 witnesses, the policemen. So hearings will last until 2022," Conti added.

Of thousands of so-called quarantine violators arrested since March 2020, many have already been cleared. Although free, they will also still have to process the trauma of arrest and the experience of an unjust prosecution.

For the San Roque 21, their legal fight continues. "They broke up a queue for food aid of the desperate and hungry, claiming that the residents of San Roque were in a ‘mass gathering,’ and throwing every possible charge at the arrested," Conti continued.

Before the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 38, they face five charges: “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.

RELATED: Kadamay unfairly blamed for Sitio San Roque protest, group and supporters say

Derailed livelihoods

The story of the San Roque 21 has been a familiar tale throughout the lockdown: Driven by hunger, they went out to the streets of EDSA on April 1 after hearing, by word of mouth, that there would be food distribution for them.

In an earlier Philstar.com report, Conti shared that the 21 charged are from different homes and have different circumstances too. Since their arrest, they have experienced fear and worry over whether they would be jailed.

“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 then.

Getting court was challenging too, Conti said.

One of the charged, Tatay Celso, had to wake up early and walk from their Agham Road to the court.

"The others pooled fare money. There were others who could not make it because they were locked in [at build sites for] construction work [or were not] in Manila,” Conti added.

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While they could, in theory, attend their arraignment via videoconference, the accused did not have a "good enough smartphone to log in through the court-sanctioned MS Teams."

"But with grace, grit and help from many, we’ll find a way as always," Conti added.

"The San Roque 21 case might be the last remaining prosecution of quarantine violations. Mindful as we slip into ECQ again, hopefully it remains so, the last of its kind," Conti also said.

Despite Conti's hopes for the San Roque 21, theirs is a story that is feared to see repeats as the National Capital Region is reverted to enhanced community quarantine status with promises of 'ayuda' or relief but funding sources yet unidentified. 

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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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