MANILA (UPDATE) - Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday said he would order the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe a recent gathering to celebrate the birthday of Metro Manila police chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas.
"There is already an existing order to the NBI to investigate violations of quarantine protocols," he told reporters.
Sinas was seen in photos holding a birthday party in a Facebook post by the National Capital Region Police Office's (NCRPO) public information office on May 8. He was also seen mingling with guests who later lined up for food, while a band provided entertainment.
The photos were later deleted.
Protocol laid down by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases to address the coronavirus pandemic prohibit gatherings and require observance of social distancing.
PNP chief Gen. Archie Gamboa earlier defended the gathering saying social distancing was observed, but he ordered the police Internal Affairs Service to look into the incident.
Sinas apologized but defended the gathering, saying the photos circulating on social media were "edited and grabbed from old posts."
"They were told to observe social distancing and other precautionary health measures. They were also told not to linger and prepare for the simultaneous relief distribution NCR-wide that day," he said.
"Nevertheless, I apologize for what transpired during my birthday that caused anxiety to the public. It was never my intention to disobey any existing protocols relative to the implementation of Enhanced Community Quarantine."
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, who oversees the police, said Sinas' birthday was "a big no-no" under lockdown rules.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said parties are gatherings and that it was insensitive to hold one at this time.
"Parties are mass gathering. It is insensitive to hold one. The Supreme Court held a retirement ceremony of a justice with 40 years of service via a private videoconferenced ceremony. He deserves more but we had to do what was ethical while our people suffer," he said in a tweet.
Critics have accused Philippine authorities of unfairly implementing laws, rules and protocols put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
More than 200,000 quarantine violators have been arrested during the lockdown period, with some detained and some charged in court.
But critics pointed out that the likes of Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who accompanied his pregnant wife at the Makati Medical Center despite already exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, and Overseas Workers' Welfare Administration Deputy Administrator Mocha Uson, who attended a gathering for overseas Filipino workers in quarantine in Batangas, were not arrested.
Guevarra rejected this claim.
"As justice secretary, I have always advised the NBI to enforce the laws fairly and uniformly. As you probably know, the case of Sen. Pimentel is now under preliminary investigation. Local government officials have also been summoned to explain apparent violations of quarantine protocols. I will instruct the NBI to include more recent cases of alleged quarantine violations by some personalities, if the NBI is not looking into these cases as yet," he said.
"My instruction is to look into all reported cases of non-cooperation/violation of quarantine protocols, regardless of who is involved. The NBI knows who these people are," he added.
Guevarra explained that warrantless arrests can only be done in specific instances.
"An arrest is immediately effected by law enforcement agents if a person is caught in the act of committing a crime, or continues to commit a crime. Otherwise, a complaint has to be filed first, a preliminary investigation conducted, and charges filed in court if probable cause is found, before a warrant of arrest is issued. That is our standard procedure," he explained.
The NBI recently arrested without a warrant a 25-year-old teacher in Zambales who tweeted that he would give a P50-million reward to anyone who could kill President Rodrigo Duterte. He confessed inside an NBI vehicle without a lawyer after NBI agents applied "reverse psychology," according to a Facebook post of an NBI operative.
The teacher, Ronnel Mas, is facing a complaint for inciting to sedition in relation to the Cyber Crime Prevention Act and violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
Mas apologized, saying he did not really have P50 million but only wanted social media clout.
But Guevarra said Tuesday that his apology could not be used as basis not to prosecute him.
"I understand that this person has been placed in custody by the NBI and may be brought to inquest. So I'll leave it to the investigating prosecutor. However, apology is not one of the grounds for extinguishing criminal liability. I cannot feloniously injure another and get away with it by merely saying 'sorry,'" he said.
Asked about teacher's warrantless arrest and custodial interrogation without the presence of a lawyer, Guevarra said:
"Let's leave it to the inquest prosecutor. I don't have all the facts. In any case, the rights of the person arrested will be respected at all times, including his right to counsel."
A construction worker in Aklan was also arrested for a social media post offering a P100-million reward for the President's slay.