(Manila) – The Philippine National Police (PNP) should immediately end a “crime prevention” campaign that has disproportionately targeted “loiterers” in low-income areas of Manila and other cities, Human Rights Watch said today. Since June 13, 2018, police have arrested more than 8,000 people and detained many in detention facilities, already dangerously overcrowded due to mass surrenders of drug suspects linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”
The great majority of those arrested are known as “tambays,” shirtless men who congregate on city streets in poorer neighborhoods, often drinking alcohol in public. Typically, they are not brought before a judge, but detained for a period and then released, though sometimes criminal charges are brought. Police have focused the anti-loitering campaign in the same communities that have been the epicenter of “drug war” summary killings, which have resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people since mid-2016.
“The Philippine National Police are conducting a ‘crime prevention’ campaign that essentially jails low-income Filipinos for being in public,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “This campaign threatens to retraumatize residents of communities already terrorized by ‘drug war’ executions and is risking the detainees’ health and safety.”
President Duterte has sent vague messages about the campaign, increasing the likelihood of abuses. He ordered a “strict” crackdown against loiterers whom he also warned constituted “potential trouble for the public.” Then on June 22, he said he never ordered the police to arrest so-called “loiterers.” Two days later, the Metro Manila police chief, Guillermo Eleazar, said that police had mostly only “accosted” rather than arrested suspects in the anti-loitering campaign and that he had forbidden his personnel from using the term tambay in the campaign. But Eleazar said police would continue to enforce ordinances – a task normally relegated to neighborhood officials.
Several thousand suspects are detained in grossly overcrowded detention centers with poor and inhumane health and hygiene conditions. Overcrowding of Philippine jails has long made them hazardous to detainees’ health because of inadequate food, ventilation, health care, and toilet facilities. As a result, pulmonary illnesses such as tuberculosis, skin infections, diarrhea, and sepsis run rampant among detainees.
Torture and other forms of ill-treatment are also common. A detention cell in a Quezon City police station designed to hold 40 people has been holding 135 suspects arrested in the “anti-loitering” campaign. On June 22, police initially attributed the death in detention of Genesis Argoncillo, a “loitering” suspect arrested for being shirtless in public, to “difficulty breathing.” However, Argoncillo’s death certificate indicated that his body bore signs of foul play including “multiple blunt force trauma" in his "neck, head, chest, and upper extremities.”
There are indications that the police enforcement of the “anti-loitering” campaign is arbitrarily ensnaring Filipinos who are lawfully on the streets at night. Two call center agents complained that police arrested them on June 16 for “loitering” as they stood on a street corner outside a friend’s house. The arresting officers have since been dismissed.
The campaign against “loiterers” is based on long-existing local ordinances prohibiting men from being shirtless and other offenses. It has provoked intensive public backlash by evoking memories of arbitrary police targeting of the urban poor during the 1972-1981 martial law period under the late President Ferdinand Marcos. The government has sought to counter that criticism by insisting that it is merely pursuing a legitimate crime-prevention campaign and that it will not affect citizens “who do nothing wrong.”
“The Philippine National Police are again demonstrating their preference for wielding fear, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest to target vulnerable communities rather than respect for the rule of law,” Kine said. “The Philippine government should protect the basic rights of all Filipinos rather than let the police demolish them on the pretext of a ‘crime prevention’ campaign.”