Prosecutor orders release of students arrested in US Embassy protest

Joyce Balancio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 12 2023 07:18 PM

MANILA - The Manila City Prosecutor’s Office on Wednesday ordered the release of the two student activists who were arrested on Tuesday morning after staging a protest in front of the US embassy in Manila to oppose the conduct of the Philippines-United States Balikatan Exercises.

John Gabriel Magtibay and Joanne Pagkaliwangan were taken by the Manila Police for illegal assembly, allegedly committing vandalism and resisting arrest.

The Manila Police District, in its report, insisted that the students “intentionally threw paint at the emblem of the United States Embassy before scampering away in different directions”.

When they got apprehended, they “seriously resisted by kicking and parrying the hands of the arresting police officers”, MPD also said.

But the city prosecutor, in its resolution, explained that the complainants failed to show photos or videos that the two were indeed the ones who threw the paint or took part in smearing or painting the emblem of the US embassy.

The prosecutor also referred the charge of resisting arrest “for further preliminary investigation” due to lack of evidence.

“In a report posted by ABS-CBN News, it would appear that the protest lasted only for ten minutes and the participants were already dispersed from the venue and were going home when the police mobile ran after them and were able to arrest the respondents. In the said video, respondents were not seen kicking or parrying the hands of the arresting officers. In addition, complainants did not submit any evidence that they sustained injuries when they apprehended the respondents,” the city prosecutor said in its resolution.

It also noted that under the Public Assembly Act of 1985, protests held without a permit when one is required, “may be peacefully dispersed” and that “no person can be punished or held criminally liable for participating in or attending an otherwise peaceful assembly.”

“Siyempre masaya po kasi wala naman po talagang mali doon sa naging protesta kahapon, iyon ang pinanindigan namin kaya tama lang na ma-release kami ngayong araw," Magtibay told ABS-CBN News after his release.

“Ang iniisip ko lang ay iyong komento ng mga tao na iyan kasi nagra-rally kayo pero naninindigan naman kami na dapat laging maging kritikal ng mga kabataan sa mga polisiya tulad ng Balikatan na hadlang ito sa kinabukasan ng aming mga kabataan,” he added.

Pagkaliwangan, for her part, said that this experience would not dampen her spirit as an activist, nor prevent her from joining other protests that would condemn further the Balikatan Exercises.

“Tama naman na sumama kami doon sa protest na pagtutol sa Balikatan Exercises kasi marami talagang maapektuhan lalo na kalayunan tulad ng paglulunsaran ng Balikatan Exercises at siempre maraming budget na ilalaan ang gobyerno dito na imbes na ilaan sa basic social services, sa economic crisis, eh ito pa ang tinutugan ng gobyerno,” she said.

Neo Aison, the Defend UP Network Convenor who had been the two students’ representative, asserted that there had been nothing wrong with the “protest art” that the students used, even if to some it may appear as “vandalism” and a violation of law.

“Ang essence ng protesta ay ipanawagan, iparating ang panawagan and if people deem that if vandalism... or let’s call it protest art, is the way to make their calls known, then it is something that we have to consider, what is the effect of this…if what they are fighting for is, or calling for is the sovereignty of the Filipino people,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) condemned the arrest of Magtibay and Pagkaliwangan.

"The arrest of student activists participating in a peaceful demonstration clearly violates their right to freedom of assembly. This is stipulated in international human rights covenants ratified by the Philippines, such as Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Peter Murphy, ICHRP Global Council chairperson.

The Philippines-United States Balikatan Exercise, which will be held until April 28, 2023 in selected areas in North and Central Luzon, Palawan, and Antique, aims to “develop mutual defense capability, counter-terrorism and strengthen maritime security efforts and address shared extremist threats,” the AFP said.