BERN (MindaNews / 22 December) — To use a cliché in a contemporary setting – you will never realize the loss of your freedoms in the drugs war in a martial law setting, until you are busted for something.
M (an assumed initial) is a member of a Facebook group chat of 50 or so friends and acquaintances. The chat contents are free ranging and un-administrated, just the humdrum topics of men talk. To perk up the group, some members post provocative photos, some of naked women and sex topics, and also photos of packed shabu, taken from public sites. But M goes one step further by bragging publicly that he has some “item” and willing to sell them. All in careless youthful bravado.
The problem is that some members of the chat group are policemen, and they take the posts seriously. In the Philippines where there are up to 67 million active Facebook users (making the Filipinos the 6th largest group of Facebook users in the world), even the law enforcers are monitoring and actively searching Facebook accounts and chats for tips on suspected crime.
And apparently the policemen in this group have read enough. They have a new police chief egging them on for arrests and seizures. And since 2016, the President has an ongoing drugs war targeted mainly on the small street-level users and pushers. There is pressure on them to produce results.
The police use an asset inside the group to bait M. They tell the asset to engage M in a chat on a drug deal. At noontime they set out on an operation that targets another chat group member, a barangay councilman with suspected drug links. The bigger the fry, the better. As M sets out on a bike to buy some mobile phone load, he is accosted by police who then bring him inside a tinted vehicle they are using. There he is forced to communicate with the councilman using his own phone. The interrogation inside the tinted van lasts about an hour. It never dawns on M that his rights are being violated. But this is the internet age in the Philippines, where people access massive information daily but do not know their basic rights and entitlements under the law.
The chat with the councilman (who gets suspicious with the circumstances) gets nowhere, but the police need to have something to bring home. The classic buy-bust setup ensues, and an arrest is made. The police report, quoted later by an uncritical news media, reports the seizure of 0.1 gram of shabu (the most-seized drug in buy-busts) and the return of one thousand pesos in marked money. M’s phone is also seized and used by the police to bait other “drug personalities” on their list. Already there are rights violations that a good lawyer can expose and question before the courts, but this is all unknown to M, your average unemployed street tambay.
But what about the lawyer who will represent M in a drug case? This is Surigao City, where up to two lawyers have been attacked this year. They include a retired judge, shot dead as he went out to buy his lunch, and a prosecutor who was wounded in an attack by a lone gunman outside his house. Their names were reportedly on the top three of a police intelligence list of drug coddlers and protectors. Why were they on the list? Because they handled drugs cases; in the case of the judge, a lot of drug cases were reportedly dismissed by him.
According to the Surigao president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the list included the names of seven lawyers and the attacks were meant to intimidate local lawyers from handling drugs cases. The killers of the judge were outsiders and likely hired guns, said Suriganons who witnessed the shootings but did not recognize the faces as familiar.
But back to M, who faces spending the holiday season in jail. The news reports already dub him as a drug pusher, not as the proverbial suspect. He faces a relentless war on drugs led by a President who has promised publicly to reward policemen with promotions and cash. The leader also promised to get police who were charged with rights violations in the drugs war out of jail, and has even said he would gladly be jailed on their behalf.
It’s a difficult time for M to be in jail, with martial law in Mindanao extended for another year until the end of 2019, with the military and police consolidating power and influence and with the number of civil and political rights violations increasing in the island.
This second cliché applies to him now as one of the unintended victims in the president’s war on drugs. Power corrupts. When the police and the army are given a growing scope of powers, they start to believe that they are beyond the law. They start to think they are immune from accountability for rights violations. And they are empowered more under an indeterminate period of martial law, because then the abnormal becomes the norm.
This is the best of times for a growing number of rights violators. And the worst of times for young and foolish Filipinos like M. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)