Police arrest protesters during a Pride march in Manila, Philippines, June 26, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Gerard Carreon

On June 26, police in Manila arrested at least 20 people at an LGBT Pride event protesting an anti-terrorism bill that threatens rule of law in the Philippines.

The police did not explain why they were arresting the protesters, only telling them that their actions were prohibited by law. There were no allegations of violence. The protesters were subsequently charged under the Law on Reporting of Communicable Diseases (2019) and the Public Assembly Act (1985).

As Filipino human rights advocates have pointed out, these laws do not prohibit protests and rallies, and the protesters were following social distancing protocols and wearing masks.

The government should not use the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to silence dissent and violate fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Since the pandemic began, Human Rights Watch has strongly condemned the misuse of public health restrictions as a pretense for rights violations in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central Asia, Egypt, Hungary, Jordan, Thailand, and elsewhere. The Philippine government has previously been criticized for using Covid-19 restrictions to quash dissent.

The Pride arrests underscore why protesters are rightfully concerned about the Anti-Terrorism Act, which would make it much easier for police to arrest critics of the government without a court warrant and detain them without charge for up to 24 days. President Rodrigo Duterte should not sign the Anti-Terrorism Act, and lawmakers should go back to the drawing board and ensure any future counterterrorism legislation protects the right to peaceful protest.

The first Pride parades, held in the United States, commemorated the 1969 “Stonewall Riots,” when LGBT people in New York City fought back against police brutality and raids on LGBT spaces. In recent years, activists in the Philippines as well as Hong Kong, the United States, and other countries have used marches during Pride Month to protest state repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Cracking down on protests is an affront to the very notion of Pride. Authorities in the Philippines should immediately release all those arrested on June 26 and reaffirm their fundamental right to peaceful protest under domestic and international law.