The dismissal of the case against public school teacher Ronnel Mas demonstrates that the judiciary, in the person of Judge Richard Paradeza of Regional Trial Court Branch 72 in Olongapo City, can be depended upon to uphold the rule of law. Judge Paradeza’s ruling, that Mas’ arrest by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation was illegal, served to break a seeming pattern in government actions against critics and dissenters. It’s a shot in the arm for those pushing back against the steady narrowing of the democratic space.
Mas had been charged with inciting to sedition for posting on Twitter an offer of P50 million for anyone who would kill President Duterte. For that preposterous tweet, NBI agents collared him on May 11 in a “hot pursuit” operation which, as noted by Assistant State Prosecutor Jeanette Dacpano, “does not fall within the ambit of warrantless arrest contemplated by the law.” But the case was filed nevertheless, Dacpano having deemed that Mas’ admission that he owned the Twitter account and apology for what he intended as a “joke”—both voiced to members of the media—“cured” the “defect” of his warrantless arrest
Well, not exactly. Judge Paradeza, while finding the tweet “despicable and provocative” and the NBI’s “immediate investigation … laudable and commendable,” pointed out that there was no such “cure”: Mas had in fact objected to his arrest, and his admission was nowhere in the prosecution’s records, much less presented in court. Besides, the judge said, in a clear reminder to the members of the executive branch, verbal admissions made in the absence of counsel—“even if gospel truth”—are inadmissible in court.
Judge Paradeza’s dismissal of the case against Mas provides a flicker of light in the darkening landscape. Last Friday marked a new low in police operations with the forcible dispersal on Mendiola, Manila, of LGBTQ+ activists celebrating Pride Month by raising issues of concern including, among others, discrimination, the Anti-Terror Act, and the lack of government support for jeepney drivers made jobless by the COVID-19 lockdown.
The activists — members of Bahaghari, Gabriela, Sanglahi, and allied groups — were properly wearing masks and observing physical distancing. Yet, “in a way rarely seen in crowd-control operations,” as this paper reported, their protest action was halted and they were taken into custody in the most questionable manner.
What Capt. Arnold Echalar of the Manila Police District later described as “the rule of hot pursuit” began thus: The activists were told by members of the MPD in antiriot gear to disperse. One who asked that they be allowed to finish their program was pinned to the ground by three cops, whose comrades proceeded to break up the assembly. The activists decided to disperse and headed to the two vans that had brought them to Mendiola. After a number of them had gotten in, the cops forcibly removed the drivers, commandeered the vans, and proceeded to MPD headquarters in Ermita. The others were ordered into MPD vehicles.
Beyond the statement that their protest action was illegal — “Bawal ’yan” — no one told them what laws they had violated and why they were being arrested, the activists said. They were held all weekend at the congested MPD detention center and were released only yesterday afternoon, five days after their arrest, showing all and sundry what can happen for participating in or attending a peaceful assembly. (In a touch of high irony, hours after the violent dispersal of the LGBTQ+ protest action and the arrest of 20 participants, the city of Manila put up Pride flags up and down España Avenue.)
In this time of the pandemic, police seem to find a bogeyman at every turn. Reporter Mark Makalalad of radio station dzBB was accosted last week by four cops after doing a live traffic report on Marcos Highway in Marikina City and told that he had to seek permission from authorities before reporting live. When he wondered why, Makalalad said, he was told that he might be an enemy: “Baka kalaban ka.”
Are activists, dissenters, and journalists, or tweeters cracking jokes on social media, now deemed enemies of the state, and thus moving targets of acts of harassment and oppression? Some 500 former heads of state, Nobel laureates, and lawmakers recently took note of the alarming trend and warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to rising authoritarian behavior in governments worldwide.
“Even democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance without regard to legal constraints [or] parliamentary oversight,” they said in an open letter organized by the Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
The institute cited the Philippines, along with Hungary, El Salvador, and Turkey, among such governments.
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