May 02, 2006

Maximum intolerance

Two seemingly contradictory reactions have been elicited by the Supreme Courts latest ruling striking down Malacanang's calibrated preemptive response or CPR while sustaining the constitutionality of the Marcos-era law governing public assemblies or Batas Pambansa 880.

On one hand, applause from the Opposition and other anti-Gloria political forces over the rejection of another tyrannical invention by the Arroyo presidency; on the other, vigorous assertions form the Presidents men of having been vindicated by the ruling on BP 880 and renewed threats to "implement the law" sparing no one.

Let us recall that on September 21, 2005 -- the anniversary of the Dictator Marcos martial law Executive Secretary Ermita announced that henceforth in dealing with anti-government mass actions, the CPR would be enforced in lieu of maximum tolerance as defined in BP 880.

The date for this Malacanang pronouncement was a portent of even worse suppression of civil liberties that was to come. For despite the defeat of the impeachment complaint against Mrs. Arroyo, her camp feared that the regimes political crisis was far from over. They wanted to preempt and crush any residual momentum for People Powerthat lingered and could possibly be given a new push by Senate investigations into allegations of plunder, massive electioneering and wholesale fraud.

The CPR was a Malacanang concoction, meant to strike fear into the hearts of citizens wishing to join protest demonstrations. It was also meant to embolden the police, military and the mayors to ride roughshod over the peoples fundamental rights of free speech and free assembly by restrictively, unilaterally and undemocratically imposing the no permit, no rally rule.

In practice this took the form of city hall giving rally organizers the run-around, making it virtually impossible to get a written permit in time. Since no city in Metro Manila had bothered to comply with BP 880s proviso that freedom parks be designated where no permit is necessary, the police assume that all rallies in public places require a mayors permit.

Thereafter, on the day of the demonstration, the police would ask only one question, Where is your permit to rally? They would not hear of any argument that failure of the mayors office to act on the application for a permit within two days meant that a permit is deemed granted in accordance with law. The burden of proof lies with the demonstrators but of course, the latter wont get the scrap of paper that constitutes a permit that the police would recognize and respect.

Failure to show a written permit was considered enough bases for a ground commanders order to disperse the rally pronto, using truncheons, shields and water cannon. No negotiations take place anymore since none are considered necessary.

A fair-minded person who has had occasion to witness the police violently dispersing rallies and demonstrations would immediately come to the conclusion that the CPR is indeed different from maximum tolerance. Maximum tolerance according to BP 880 means the highest degree of restraint that the military, police and other peacekeeping authorities shall observe during a public assembly or in the dispersal of the same.

Yet belatedly, in the oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General attempted to explain that CPR was no different from the maximum tolerance policy under BP 880. Executive Secretary Ermita clarified in his affidavit that it was the same banana but only declared with more forcefulness to signify that government means business in the face of mayhem and serious threats to public order.

It is a relief that the Court could see through the specious arguments of Mrs. Arroyos subalterns and ruled that CPR serves no valid purpose if it means the same thing as maximum tolerance and is illegal if it means something else.

It would have been a triumph of justice had the Court ruled that the Arroyo regime had in fact acted illegally by implementing CPR instead of maximum tolerance.
Nonetheless, the Court decision constitutes a blow to the Arroyo administration because it has disallowed the use of the kind of totalitarian double speak Malacanang has been accustomed to getting away with.

What of the states implementation of maximum tolerance under BP 880 before the advent of CPR? Unfortunately, there is hardly any qualitative difference. The Arroyo administration has time and again upheld the police and militarys undemocratic interpretation of the law as strictly no permit, no rally.

The supposed tolerance is only exhibited when demonstrations are huge; ergo the authorities have to keep a respectful distance. Or when the leaders at the forefront of the rallies are personalities like ex-Presidents, senators, bishops and people from the upper echelons of society. Or when the ruling regime is politically defensive after the latest expose, policy gaffe or some other political booboo that it never runs out of committing.

BP 880 is not about upholding the peoples fundamental rights to free speech and freedom of assembly. It is about restricting that freedom by imposing the requirement of a scrap of paper from the mayors office called a permit without which the police and military have the license to disperse and disperse brutally regardless of the absence of any clear and present danger to public safety and order except the danger that arises out of the peoples mounting call for Mrs. Arroyo to step down.

I should know. I was bashed on the head with a police truncheon and suffered a scalp laceration`that required 7 stitches, was hosed down and pummeled by water cannon, and was charged with "resisting arrest" and violating BP 880 in July 2004.

This was during a peaceful rally at Plaza Miranda violently dispersed by the Manila Police. We were calling for the withdrawal of Philippine troops from Iraq and the release of Filipino migrant worker, Angelo de le Cruz, from being taken hostage.

I had argued with the police ground commander, one Superintendent Sapitula, that Plaza Miranda is a freedom park and that we did not need a permit to demonstrate there. He insisted he had never heard of it.

Subsequently, in the complaint I filed with the Ombudsman that is still pending, the police stated in their counter affidavit that there was no ordinance that has declared Plaza Miranda as a freedom park and therefore it could not be considered one. They concluded that they were upholding the law that day by dispersing us with maximum intolerance.#


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