Opposition to a Philippine government policy of rounding up vagrants and loiterers grew Friday, with the country’s independent rights commission saying it would investigate the death of a man arbitrarily picked up by police outside his home.
Thousands of people have been arrested in the past week after Philippine National Police launched a drive to clear crowded Manila streets of loiterers in a bid to curb rising criminality.
It was described as an anti-crime drive backed by President Rodrigo Duterte, even as the country had already decriminalized vagrancy six years ago. Rights groups also questioned the move, branding it a throwback to the dictatorship regime of Ferdinand Marcos, whose police had arrested thousands of activists using the same tactics.
“He really is that abusive,” Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima commented during a court appearance on Friday.
“He is killing the poor. The vagrants and the poor are being arrested. That should not be implemented. The real vagrant is in Malacanang,” she said, referring to the presidential palace.
De Lima, the foremost critic of Duterte and a former rights commissioner, was thrown in jail early last year over what the political opposition said are trumped up charges of drug trafficking.
Duterte’s justice secretary at the time had charged de Lima with protecting jailed drug lords in exchange for money to fund her senatorial campaign. This has, however, not stopped her from railing against Duterte.
While de Lima was not specific, she made the statement amid growing public anger over the death of Genesis Agoncillo, who was detained last week for loitering outside a neighborhood store without a shirt on – a common sight in humid Manila streets.
His family said Agoncillo, who had no previous criminal record, had just bought credits for his mobile phone when he was picked up. It was not clear why police had held him for days even if he wasn’t charged with anything. On Tuesday, his family was told that he had been rushed to a hospital apparently after he was beaten by fellow inmates.
The police said a doctor who examined Agoncillo had testified that there were “no signs of external injuries.”
Officials did not offer any other explanation, but noted that four other inmates in jails in suburban Quezon City north of Manila had died within a month because of congestion. In one police station alone, 138 inmates were crowding in a tiny cell built for only six people.
The independent Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on Friday stressed that not everyone who loiters is a criminal and that alleged criminals picked up by the police are entitled to due process.
“The bad conditions in the prison system, including abuses that lead to injuries or deaths of inmates can be classified as torture or inhumane,” CHR spokeswoman Jackie de Guia said in a statement.
“The CHR is investigating the case of Genesis Agoncillo for the possible culpability of the police in this incident,” she said, adding that CHR was making regular visits in cells around the country.
Rights group Karapatan said its own investigation showed in the past week police had arrested about 6,000 people simply for loitering. The group branded the action as arbitrary.
“Such acts can even be reminiscent of Marcos’s martial law, when curfews were enforced by his brutal state forces,” Karapatan head Cristina Palabay said.
“We deplore the continuing assault on people’s rights of the Duterte regime through his police and military,” Palabay said, adding that the public should oppose illegal arrests by the police.
But presidential spokesman Harry Roque, a former rights lawyer, said the policy was part of Duterte’s crime prevention measures. Roque on Thursday urged individuals to complain to police if they felt any abuses were committed.
“I am sure the proper charges will be filed against the policemen and that they will be fired from the service,” Roque said, contesting rights groups’ claims that thousands had been arrested.
This is not the first time that Philippine police methods have raised questions.
Three teenagers were among dozens killed last year in the force’s anti-drug drive, in what apparently were cases of mistaken identity and a South Korean businessman was kidnapped by police officers inside police headquarters in Manila.
Church-led protest marches against the killings prompted Duterte to strip police of the lead role in the drug war. He later reinstated the force and vowed to protect officers from jail time if they were convicted of killing while on the job.