UP protesters safe, others warned
MANILA, Philippines — Only protesters on the University of the Philippines (UP) campus at Diliman will be safe from arrest as President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a joint session of Congress on Monday. As long as the protesters stay within the campus, they will be left alone, Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, chief of the National Capital Region Police Office, said on Sunday.
If they cross borders, they will not be immediately arrested, Sinas said, citing an agreement between the police and protest groups.
“We would first talk to their leaders [to remind] them of the ban on protests, and they should disperse themselves,” he said.
“But after our dialogue and they remain hardheaded, and their activity has already caused a commotion, then that’s the time that they would be arrested,” he said.
‘High risk’ of virus transmission
As for activist groups that plan to march to the legislative complex in Quezon City, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) appealed to them not to proceed with mass actions to help prevent the further spread of the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory illness COVID-19.
The Philippine National Police is deploying 5,000 officers to the Batasang Pambansa area to keep order as Mr. Duterte delivers his fifth State of the Nation Address, in which he is expected to lay out his plan to fight the coronavirus while keeping the economy running.
The security forces will be backed by about 2,000 officers from the Bureau of Fire Protection, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology and traffic law enforcers from the Quezon City government and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.
In a statement issued on Sunday, DILG spokesperson Jonathan Malaya stressed that any kind of mass gathering carried a “high risk” of coronavirus transmission.
“This is not and will never be unique to rallies,” Malaya said.
Addressing protest organizers and members of activist groups, Malaya said: “We urge them to be responsible Filipino citizens and do their part in defeating this global pandemic. We ask them to be part of the solution and not the problem.”
Citing advice from “the medical community,” Malaya urged the public “to avoid mass gatherings of any kind” due to the “high risk of [coronavirus] transmission.”
“While we agree that the public has the right to peacefully assemble for the redress of grievances, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and such assemblies are subject to reasonable regulation of the authorities to protect public health and the general welfare,” he said.
No rally permits
Earlier, the PNP gave assurance that it would not invoke the coronavirus epidemic to crack down on dissent. But the DILG, which oversees the PNP, directed local governments in the metropolis on Thursday not to give permits for rallies planned for Monday.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on Sunday expressed concern over the national government’s change of tone.
“The change in messaging is stark: from the PNP’s willingness to remind and assist protesters observe minimum health standards to express their opinion to a complete ban on mass gatherings,” CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia said in a statement.
“We stress the importance of everyone’s compliance [with] health protocols … But even in the face of a pandemic, human rights need to be recognized,” De Guia said. “We must equally think of the implications to public health when we don’t demand accountability and better services from the government that has the obligation to protect its people.”
The CHR cited studies in such countries as the United States and Australia that showed protest marches had not led to a spike in coronavirus infections as long as participants observed the health measures set by the World Health Organization.
Militant groups led by Bayan said they were ready for a massive rally on the UP campus on Monday.
“The public outrage over the management of the COVID crisis, the resulting economic crisis and the government’s penchant for suppressing dissent will be the highlight of the protests,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes said in a statement.
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