Harsh only on the powerless
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In August 2015, the Supreme Court allowed former senator Juan Ponce Enrile to post bail for the nonbailable plunder charges he had faced in the P10-billion pork barrel scam. In a 16-page decision, associate justice Lucas Bersamin cited Enrile’s age (91), his supposedly fragile health, and his “social and political standing” as sufficient reasons to grant him bail even before bail hearings had started.
In November 2018, former first lady Imelda Marcos was convicted with finality by the antigraft court Sandiganbayan on seven counts of graft in connection with at least $200 million funneled into Swiss foundations that she and spouse, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, had created under aliases.
Then Philippine National Police director general Oscar Albayalde cited the Marcos widow’s age of 89 in his wariness to arrest her, despite the final graft conviction that had earned her at least 40 years in prison. “Baka magalit sa atin ang matanda. May edad na kasi. Unang-una, we have to take into consideration the age—in any arrest or anybody for that matter, that has to be taken into consideration, the health, the age,” cautioned Albayalde.
That mindful “consideration” certainly didn’t apply to Elmer Cordero, 72, who remained in police custody for an entire week after he and five other jeepney drivers belonging to the transport group Piston were arrested by the Caloocan PNP for allegedly breaching quarantine protocols on June 2.
The group had gathered at the Bonifacio monument on the second day of the general community quarantine in Metro Manila to protest the government’s decision to continue the ban on jeepneys, and call attention to their suffering through a street rally called “Busina Para sa Balik Pasada.” Although they had worn face masks and practiced social distancing, the Piston 6, as the group came to be known, were hauled off to the Caloocan jail where they had to sleep on cardboard in cells so tight that their lawyer saw inmates being rapid-tested for COVID-19. The lawyer said he had information that the jail’s congestion had produced a positive case, hence the testing.
So the drivers were arrested for alleged lack of social distancing that could possibly spread COVID-19, yet were detained in a space where such distancing was impossible. Was there a method to this police madness?
That the drivers were middle-aged to elderly and had preexisting health conditions didn’t help any; neither did the P3,000 bail set for each of them. (A gratuitous cruelty, considering they had appealed for aid precisely because they had nothing.)
Efforts to bail them out were met with obstacles. In his online updates on the case, Caloocan Rep. Egay Erice cited such excuses thrown their way as alleged problems with online connections for the 24-hour delay in the inquest by the prosecutor’s office, and the no-work weekend that lengthened the group’s stay in jail.
On June 8, four of the drivers were finally released after posting bail, but two remained in custody, including the frail-looking Cordero, because of an alleged old crime under his name that couldn’t be immediately verified. The police refused to consider humanitarian grounds to release them. The two regained their freedom only late Tuesday, but not before Malacañang dismissed concerns about the case by intoning that charges have to be faced “regardless of age.”
Contrast the Piston 6’s plight with, just to cite a flagrant example, the kid-gloves treatment the government yet again accorded a presidential favorite, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) official Mocha Uson. On April 25, Uson initiated a gathering in Batangas of some 300 overseas Filipino workers who were supposed to be on a mandatory two-week quarantine after coming home from work abroad. The police, routinely severe on ordinary citizens perceived to be defying quarantine regulations, took no note of Uson’s cocky violation of the ban on mass gatherings (she posted photos of the assembly on her Facebook page). Likewise, instead of reprimanding his subordinate, OWWA administrator Hans Cacdac excused her action as “well-intentioned,” said her services were needed at this time (“for instance, she can bring food to stranded seafarers”), and deferred any investigation of the matter to “after quarantine.”
Intention was certainly the last thing considered in the case of Piston 6, if at all. Instead, despite their advanced age, disproportionate punishment was inflicted on this group of hapless drivers driven to the streets by hunger and need. The law is harsh but it is the law, as administration apologists love to trumpet? It is harsh only on individuals with no “social and political standing,” and no hold on those in power to defend themselves.
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