‘License to harass’
What’s wrong with rounding up “tambays” and throwing them in jail?
Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay provides a pithy, chilling summary on Twitter: “It empowers the police to arrest anyone they don’t like; it’s a virtual license to harass and extort from citizens; powerless citizens are the only likely targets; women are particularly made more vulnerable. Btw [by the way], it’s also unconstitutional.”
Some people will disagree. Viewed on its own, the “anti-tambay” order of President Duterte may come off as no more than a long-needed community corrective — a way to cleanse the streets of eyesores, idlers, loiterers, drunks and generally suspicious folk, the way the “war on drugs” has supposedly swept away alleged lowlifes and their cohorts and made entire neighborhoods safe and respectable again.
But, for whatever laudable intentions it may have — “Sabi ko ’yung mga istambay paalisin ’yan dyan para ang tao maglakad sa gabi wala nang… (I said get rid of the loiterers so people can walk safe at night),” said Mr. Duterte — the latest sweeping crackdown on another sector of Filipino society is indeed arbitrary, prone to abuse, and bereft of clear legal basis.
“Vagrancy,” the old misdemeanor often used to justify such arrests (or, worse, to extort from sex workers and other night denizens of the city), has long been repealed.
But, from June 13-18 alone, the police reported making over 5,500 arrests, with the apprehended individuals thrown into already overcrowded jails.
This, despite the admission by Philippine National Police Director General Oscar D. Albayalde that clear and uniform guidelines on the campaign have yet to be issued.
The lack of those guidelines was never more clear than when a group of six people were jailed last week for waiting outside a friend’s home in Makati on their way to a night out.
Police said the group was merely “invited” for questioning, and that they were thrown behind bars so they “could not escape.”
More absurdly, the crackdown on “tambay” simply collides with the stark reality of the urban poverty that forces whole Filipino families to live their lives out in the open.
Manila’s homeless population is some 3.1 million — said to be the largest in the world, with a large proportion of that number children eking out a living on the streets.
Rounding up seeming bums and idlers will only inevitably sweep up many of these people in the police dragnet. As with the drug war, the drive to clean up the alleys and hovels of bedraggled men, of people with no visible employment, preoccupation or ready homes to duck into, is bound to end up targeting the poor and the homeless.
Malacañang’s rote assurance is that, unless they are up to no good, people have no reason to fear.
Told about the complaints of call-center agents working odd hours who got apprehended, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said any citizen could always sue the police for illegal detention, and “if the trauma cannot be reversed, he can also file civil damages against the policeman.”
(Left unsaid is the fact that, for ordinary citizens, suing the government is itself a traumatic, Sisyphean undertaking.)
Roque added that this is not by any means a prelude to martial law — although one of the policemen who arrested the group in Makati must have been absent at the briefing: “Basta sinabi ng Pangulo, batas agad ’yun (Whatever the President says is law),” he barked at the group.
That, in a nutshell, is what’s insidious about the “anti-tambay” campaign. Once again in the name of peace and order, and on the mere say-so of the President, the police appear to have worked themselves up into a showboating frenzy of mass arrests of hapless citizens on the flimsiest grounds.
The heavy-handed campaign purports to address a social problem, but what it does is merely expand the environment of impunity — the authorities further emboldened to make short shrift of people’s basic rights and democratic space.
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