An offense against all

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The middle and lower ranks of the police and the military may have been confused by, and were in fact leery of, the Human Security Act (HSA). But that was before they were briefed by their superiors, who, taking their orders from their bosses who’re privy to the intent of that deliberately misnamed law, most likely assured them they had nothing to fear but fear itself from the Act’s so-called safeguards.

Among the latter are those provisions prohibiting torture and penalizing wrongful arrests with a fine of P500,000 each day a suspect is detained. True, the fine gave the police and military a few sleepless nights. While police and military men won’t have to pay the fine out of their pockets, their agencies will have to, and the generals can’t have any of that, can they? Imagine the reduction in perks like free gas and unaudited expenses such a drain on the budget can mean!

The bad news for everyone is that even the prospect of being fined doesn’t seem to bother our protectors anymore. If they detained someone for terrorism, and it turns out he was just a dirty ice cream vendor who wouldn’t know one end of a bomb from another, they can always say they arrested him for vagrancy and forgot about him in the Imus municipal jail. There’s also that other option, which some lawyers fear could mean more bodies in this country’s tainted rivers, and that’s to “neutralize” him out of existence, and to deny, deny, deny that they ever arrested him in the first place.

As for torture, the entire archipelago knows that pre-HSA laws already prohibit that, just as the same laws require the presence of a lawyer during interrogation, but that these bans are worth as much in practice as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s word is.

The police and the military are in almost the same situation as they were during the early days of martial law, when they didn’t quite know what they could or couldn’t do– but did learn fast enough.

Fidel Ramos—remember him?—in fact apologized to the first group of martial law detainees in Camp Crame in 1972. As Chief of the Philippine Constabulary—whose name was never quite complete unless preceded by the adjective “dreaded” –Ramos was Chief of the Command for the Administration of Detainees. So sorry, he told the teachers, students, journalists, labor leaders, and delegates to the Constitutional Convention who had been arrested under Proclamation 1081, “we’re new at this.”

Within days of Ramos’ apology, however, news of torture, beatings, and at least one detainee death spread in his own camp. Eventually the military learned that if it could get away with abductions and torture before Proclamation 1081, it could get away with more during.

Which is precisely what could happen in these bad HSA days: if the country doesn’t watch out, the police and the military will soon learn the exact same lessons, by, among other means, arresting “terrorists” under the blanket authority of the HSA, and doing what they please with them.

For this enterprise, they have the usual suspects available at their convenience, meaning the Muslims. Thanks to widespread biases, the Muslims among us seem credible terrorist suspects. After all, not only some Manila broadsheets habitually describe Muslims as “violent” and “treacherous,” even some Mindanao papers have been known to describe Moros as “beasts” deserving of extermination.

The most recent triggers of these biases is the beheading of the 10 Philippine Marines in Basilan, which the military has been trying to pin on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But the bombing of buses in Koronadal City last week has also fallen like HSA manna into the laps of the police and the military, providing them an opportunity to test their powers under the Act and the changed circumstances it has created.

A joint police-ISAFP (Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines) team arrested one Kaharudin Talib, who had recently arrived from Mindanao, in a metro Manila mall last August 3. They detained him for three days under the terms of the HSA, and then presented him to the media on August 7 in one of those affairs in which suspects are presented to the public as convicted criminals with the collaboration of often uncritical media organizations.

Talib was accused of being a Jemah Islamiyah member, and the driver of a car bomb police had seized in South Cotabato last June 13. He was also accused of involvement in a plot to bomb metro Manila targets. But Talib’s lawyer said he was in Manila to look for a job abroad, was working as a tricycle driver meanwhile, and had been tortured into admitting membership in JI and involvement in the Mindanao bombings. A Manila media practitioner, whose anti-Muslim biases are well known, promptly presented Talib’s “confession” during an interview as further proof that he was indeed a terrorist.

Either Talib’s lawyer was lying or the police and military were. The latter denied they had Talib until they presented him to the media. But what was most telling was their “follow up operation” on August 4 on Talib’s rented room in a boarding house in Manila’s Maharlika Village, where, after forcing other residents out, the police and military emerged with “evidence” that, indeed, Talib was plotting a terrorist bomb attack on Manila targets.

Both the arrest and the “follow-up operation” took place without the benefit of a warrant, which the HSA allows against terrorism suspects. But there’s more. Talib’s being labeled a terrorist was apparently enough justification not only for the police and the military to arrest him without a warrant and keep him incommunicado for three days, but also for them to enter Talib’s room, search it without a warrant, and “discover” bomb- making parts.

Few people still care enough to be outraged over the wrongful arrest of someone from an ethnic and religious group against whom there’s widespread majority bias. But Muslim lawyers point out that the arrest of Talib, who’s likely to be innocent, allows the real terrorists to get away with bombings and other depredations.

That’s true enough. But there’s also the even more crucial truth that abuses against minority groups usually end up spreading and metastizing through the entire society. That has always been a constant danger, held in fragile check by the most Herculean efforts, in this land of lawlessness. But the HSA has made it even more likely unless everyone realizes that an offense against the rights of anyone will encourage offenses against the rights of all. That’s what Filipinos painfully learned during the martial law period. It’s time to learn that lesson again, before the police and the military relearn theirs.

(BusinessWorld)

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