When cops go after lawyers
On Aug. 16, 2018, lawyers Jan Vincent Sambrano Soliven, Lenie Rocel Elmido Rocha and Romulo Bernard Bustamante Alarkon conducted routine monitoring of the Makati police’s implementation of a search warrant in a nearby bar. Police raided the bar days ago, alleging it was a “drug den.” The three lawyers, who introduced themselves as legal counsel for the bar owner, took notes, photos and videos. They were instructed to monitor the search and look out for irregularities.
At the bar, the police officers opened a cabinet, took inventory, then turned to the lawyers to ask: What are you doing here?
The events that followed would only make it to social media a day after, through a post in the European Journal of International Law blog written by lawyer Diane Desierto, partner in the law firm where the three young lawyers worked. “Young Philippine lawyers arrested today for ‘obstruction of justice’ in the Philippines’ drug war,” its title said.
Lawyers are supposed to know how to defend themselves. So how did the baseless arrests happen?
The lawyers were detained for more than a day, denied access to friends, family, even counsel. Then they were subjected to more trumped-up charges, including disobedience to authorities and a dubious “constructive possession of illegal drugs” charge, which, on its own, does not exist as a crime. All because the police said they were “intimidated” by the lawyers.
Thankfully, a Makati prosecutor issued a release order sometime on Friday night. The three lawyers were free.
But are they, really? Are we?
What the Makati police saw were three lawyers who could call them out and hold them accountable should they step over the line. There is no obstruction of justice or disobedience or possession of drugs here, only a refusal to be held to account.
Clearly, the arrests and illegal detention were nothing short of harassment, meant to discourage not only lawyers—but also monitors, advocates, watchdogs, citizens—from keeping a steady eye on the officers implementing President Duterte’s malevolent drug war. It’s a brazen assertion of power by the police as they struggle to hold on to their legitimacy and face widespread condemnation for enabling thousands of killings, made in the name of the people they are supposed to protect.
It’s a display of self-righteous laziness, one unwilling to stand by standard protocol and the rule of law, and which violently retaliates at the slightest suggestion that things were not done as they should have been.
What is it about criticism, opposition or accountability that scares the police into making blitzkrieg kills or arrests? What would it take from them to realize that they are not invulnerable? That, whatever war they are fighting, their authority is not without its limits? That we are allowed to remind them of those limits—and step in, if necessary?
Everywhere, the drug war is characterized by the arrogance of those who seek to implement it, on the belief that there is no greater good than the bloody reassurance that the streets have been wiped of drug addicts. Never mind the innocent bodies, the corruption of the police, or the President’s ridiculous distinction between “human rights” and “human lives.”
We’re all supposed to trust police officers and work with them—lawyers most especially. More and more, however, it will be hard to shake off how much I, as a young lawyer myself, now deeply distrust many of the police for being the power-hungry, corrupt and lying representations of everything that is wrong with this drug war, Mr. Duterte and his administration.
That’s what this drug war has achieved. Not peaceful streets, not peace of mind, but toxic fumes of conflict, doubt and disgust.
Anna Bueno, 29, is an independent lawyer, writer and researcher working on issues of accountability, transparency and citizen participation in the Philippines.
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