A QUEZON City metropolitan court on Tuesday acquitted 21 people whom police arrested in 2020 for violating lockdown rules during a protest where they demanded food aid amid a coronavirus pandemic.

In a 14-page order, Presiding Judge Boomsri S. Rodolfo said the protesters did not violate the law in their attempt to get food at the start of the lockdowns imposed nationwide. They were within their rights to protest and could not have resisted arrest, it added.

“The accused were acting within their rights when they were outside of their respective residences to plea for food,” the court said. “The police officers, at the time they confronted the accused and under the circumstances established in this case, cannot compel the latter to obey their directive to go home.”

The law on public assemblies only punishes organizers who fail to secure permits to hold a rally, the court said.

“Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the accused indeed engaged in a rally without the required permit under the law, they cannot be convicted as charged in the information because section 13 of the said law is limited to penalizing the leaders of organizers,” it added.

The lawyers of the 21 residents of San Roque in Quezon City said justice had been served. “The dismissal of the motley of trumped-up charges against the residents seeking aid in the midst of a lockdown is a triumph we share with the many others who helped and empathized,” The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said in a statement. 

“Political repression always thrives on fear and sheer might,” it said. “But with the law in our favor, the people should always have the right to reason and resist.”

The government had banned mass gatherings and required physical distancing to contain the pandemic that has killed more than 6 million people worldwide.

In 2020, former police chief Debold M. Sinas threatened to arrest and charge people who violate quarantine protocols. He was later caught attending a birthday party with friends amid the lockdowns.

“Let this case not be remembered for the inhumanity of President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s administration’s grossly disproportionate and incongruent response to a public health problem; let it stand testament to the enduring spirit of bayanihan in each one of us,” the lawyers said. — John Victor D. Ordoñez