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Justice chief: Community pantry organizers can’t be compelled to give info

Justice chief: Community pantry organizers can't be compelled to give info

MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said community pantry organizers are under no obligation to fill out any forms that may be handed to them and that are feared to be used for profiling.

In a message to reporters on Tuesday, Guevarra said they community pantry organizers “have no legal duty or are under any compulsion to fill out any forms, as these are not considered business, much less illegal activities.”

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He added that interrogating community pantry organizers is improper unless there is reason to believe that they violated any law, ordinance, rule or regulation.

“Suffice it to say that a person voluntarily doing an act of kindness and compassion toward his neighbor should be left alone,” Guevarra also said.

The justice secretary has long said that having political beliefs is not illegal. He has also said that police cannot just take away protest signs and placards. These, hovever, have not stopped the security sector from interpresting and enforcing laws as they see fit.

Red-tagging, police visits

Red-tagging has forced organizers of the Maginhawa Community Pantry, the first food bank that inspired dozen others to put up their own, to temporarily halt its operations on Tuesday.

RELATED: Human Rights Watch: Community pantry organizers should be ‘extolled, not vilified’

In a Facebook post, Ana Patricia Non said she and other volunteers fear for their safety. She included several screenshots of social media posts linking organizers to communist groups; some of these posts have been shared by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and the Quezon City Police District although the latter had already apologized for the act.

Other organizers also reported that similar harassment. Ia Marañon, organizer of community pantry in Barangay Loyola Heights also in Quezon City, told Philstar.com that cops in combat fatigues approached them and asked for information on the organizers and their affiliations.

“They were really adamant looking for the names of the organizers. They even asked us if we knew what happened in Maginhawa…it felt like a threat to us, and they even sounded proud of what they did. I don’t get why they had to bring it up in that way,” she said in a phone call.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers also asserted that community pantries are initiated by volunteers to share what they have and to encourage others. These activities are not intended for profit or commercial purposes, they added.

“Thus, not being prohibited by law, and are not considered a regulated activity, it can be undertaken without governmental permits and licenses which are usually required for and applicable to commercial undertakings,” the NUPL added.

READ: Permit or not? Mixed messages as gov’t unsure how to address community pantries

The rights lawyers stressed that government interference such as State forces asking organizers to sign documents is an unreasonable intrusion. “This violates their constitutional rights to privacy and is a violation of R.A. No. 10173 (Data Privacy Act of 2012). Not being required, and in fact prohibited by law, the organizers should not be forced, and are within their right, to refuse to sign any disclosure forms,” they added.

Lawyers on the ground?

As reports of community pantry organizers report cops approaching and asking them of their affiliations rise, Bayan Muna chairperson Neri Colmenares said in a open letter to the legal profession that there is a suggestion for lawyers and law student groups to urgently issue statements in support of them.

“Lawyers, with the help of law students, can take turns guarding these pantries and explain to the police that they cannot just interrogate people without legal basis,” he added.

But Guevarra, asserting that organizers have no duty to answer such forms, said in his opinion, presence of lawyers in these community pantries may be unnecessary.

NUPL president Edre Olalia however pointed out that the presence of lawyers “is made necessary by the presence of police in a place where they should not be there to start with.”

Guevarra has refused to directly answer whether police asking organizers to fill out forms is a violation of the right to privacy. He said he does not want to prejudge a case that may potentially be filed before his department. — with reports from Franco Luna

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Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com

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