The warrantless arrest of at least five Filipinos who made implausible online death threats against President Rodrigo Duterte has sparked allegations of police abuse and raised fears of a crackdown against citizens who may be acting out during the coronavirus quarantine.
On May 11, National Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Ronnel Mas, a 25-year-old public school teacher who had tweeted that he would pay 50 million pesos (S$1 million) to anyone who would assassinate the president.
On May 12, police in the southern province of Cebu arrested Maria Ceron, 26, for offering 75 million pesos for a hit job on Duterte. And on May 19, police arrested a young man, who was not named, for writing on Facebook: “200 million to anybody who kills Duterte. Bring me his head here in my barangay (village).”
Observers have said the arrests are “illegal”, while doctors have called for more understanding of people making outlandish statements while under quarantine.
Lawyer Christian Monsod, who helped write the country’s constitution in 1987, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “The arrests were unconstitutional. No warrant of arrest. No complaint. No basis for a warrantless arrest.
“Whether [the messages were] libellous or not is for a court to decide, not the police,” Monsod said.
The Presidential Security Group was quoted by local tabloid Abante TNT as saying that “anybody could be held liable if he threatens to harm or kill a person, what more if the one that is threatened is the president of the republic”.
Abante TNT said the authorities were looking for others who posted threats online, including one person who had asked the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf to shoot Duterte.
The arrests come a month after Duterte appeared to give the green light for police to “shoot dead” violators of the lockdown.
Police have also arrested other critics insulting Duterte on social media. On May 13, Reynaldo Orcullo, a 41-year-old salesman, was arrested after writing on Facebook that Duterte was “buang (crazy)” and an “a*****e”.
Law enforcers cited several reasons for the warrantless arrests: Inciting sedition, cyberlibel, and in the case of Mas, violating the code of conduct for public officials.
Unhappy over the shutdown of the Philippines’ largest broadcaster ABS-CBN, Mas fired off some tweets criticising Duterte, including one in which he offered a bounty for Duterte’s death.
Although it was clear Mas was not wealthy enough to pay the fee he was claiming to offer, he later appeared handcuffed at a media briefing, where he was made to “confess”.
The Justice Department said Mas’ arrest was “invalid”, but it became valid when Mas “confessed extrajudicially” to the media. After eight days in jail, Mas was released on bail of 72,000 pesos.
Those arrested without warrants have apologised and said they were joking. Mas said he just wanted to attract attention.
Critics have highlighted the irony that police would go after people making outlandish death threats against Duterte, a president known for making death threats himself. In 2017, he threatened to behead former president Benigno Aquino III for saying “nothing was happening” in the government’s drugs war.
Duterte has also called on people to kill oligarchs, priests, drug lords and corrupt officials. He has instructed soldiers to shoot female rebels in the genitals.
Manuel Mogato, a former journalist who covered the Philippine police and military for decades, said: “The arrests of ordinary people who speak out or make jokes on killing the president have a chilling effect.
“It’s like (Duterte) is a king who can’t be criticised,” he said.
Mogato said the police were emboldened to arrest without warrants because “Duterte has repeatedly (told police) ‘I will not allow you to go to jail’”.
He added that there were likely to be more cases of police abuse because “under Duterte, police professionalism is vanishing”.
Chel Diokno, a human rights lawyer, said: “It is not the job of the police to protect the president from the opinions of citizens. Their job is to protect the citizens.”
Psychiatrist Ricardo Soler said the coronavirus quarantine, which has seen entire cities in the Philippines locked down, had “exacerbated psychiatric conditions very badly”.
Filipinos were suffering under the quarantine and those acting out needed to be evaluated, not arrested, he said.
“It’s a very, very big problem,” Soler said. “There are so many on Twitter, on WhatsApp, who are so upset. They just need to vent out or let go of their emotions.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.