Arrests of relief ops volunteers, film writer show Duterte regime’s anti-people face amid COVID-19 pandemic

Human rights watchdog Karapatan decried the government’s continuing militarist response to the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic following the illegal arrest of volunteers set to distribute humanitarian aid to urban poor and peasant communities in Norzagaray, Bulacan as well as the arbitrary arrest of a screenwriter in Cebu City over a satirical Facebook post regarding the halting of mass testing in an urban poor community in the city.

“Instead of heeding calls for mass testing and fast-tracking of socioeconomic relief in vulnerable communities, the government seems to be more preoccupied with arresting critics and activists — even those who are working to distribute humanitarian aid in underserved communities affected by the lockdown measures to curb the pandemic,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated.

At around 10:15 a.m. today, April 19, a relief operation by Tulong Anakpawis and Sagip Kanayunan were blocked at a checkpoint in Norzagaray, Bulacan. Six volunteers, including the driver of the jeepney carrying relief goods, were brought to the Norzagaray Municipal Police Station where they were blatantly red-tagged by police personnel as members of the New People’s Army. Copies of alternative periodical Pinoy Weekly, informational pamphlets, banners, and 50 relief packs were also confiscated by the police. After being unjustly detained without charges for hours, the six volunteers along with former Anakpawis Party-list Rep. Ariel “Ka Ayik” Casilao — who came to the volunteers’ aid — are still being held at the police station.

Meanwhile, screenwriter Maria Victoria Beltran was arrested around 12:30 a.m. over a satirical Facebook post she made criticizing the Cebu City Health Department’s decision to stop mass testing at the urban poor community of Sitio Zapatera in Brgy. Luz, Cebu City. Her post drew the ire of Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella who tagged her post as “fake news” and a “criminal act” and threatened to have her thrown in prison. She is being charged with violating the Cybercrime Law and is currently detained at the Police Regional Office 7.

The Karapatan officer said that “these deplorable arrests only show the true anti-people and repressive acts of the Duterte administration, a government who is merely concerned with silencing dissent and consolidating power instead of addressing people’s lives and welfare especially amid the onslaught of this pandemic.”

“We urgently call for the immediate release of Ka Ayik and the volunteers from Tulong Anakpawis and Sagip Kanayunan who are being unjustly detained on baseless accusations. We also strongly demand that the cybercrime case lodged against Beltran be junked. These arrests are clearly meant to intimidate and harass individuals and organizations who criticize and expose the government’s inadequate response to this pandemic. As we all work on efforts to aid the vulnerable and the marginalized, we will also not stop in calling out the government’s incompetence and in demanding a response that comprehensively addresses the plight of the people,” she ended.