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DOJ maintains mass gatherings, including protests, still banned to prevent spread of COVID-19

Ahead of Independence Day on Friday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said mass gatherings, including protests, are banned to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Solely for public health reasons and nothing else, mass gatherings, including protest rallies, are temporarily banned to avoid direct transmission of the COVID-19 virus," Guevarra said in a message to reporters on Thursday.

"Violations may give rise to penal sanctions under existing public health laws, not under criminal laws. As (Interior) Sec. (Eduardo) Año said, there are safer ways to express one's protest during this period of public health emergency," he added.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), however, said there is no law prohibiting rallies even during the pandemic.

The NUPL said Thursday that the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and the law on mandatory reporting of notifiable diseases do not have provisions allowing arrests due to alleged violations of quarantine rules or the prohibition on mass gatherings.

"Various IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force) rules and executive orders on ECQ/GCQ (enhanced/general community quarantine) -- which are not criminal laws -- do not prohibit rallies or authorize the arrest of rallyists,"  the NUPL said.

The lawyers' group cited Section 4, Article III of the 1987 Constitution, which says "no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances."

Malacañang earlier urged those planning to hold Independence Day protests to express their sentiments online instead. Police Lieutenant General Guillermo Eleazar, chief of the Joint Task Force COVID Shield, has told those planning to protest to "think twice."

NUPL president Edre Olalia said his organization and other allied groups will proceed with their planned protests.

"Yes, the people cannot be muzzled and put in an internet bivouac alone to express themselves," he said in a message to reporters.

"Even the WHO (World Health Organization) recognizes the importance of the exercise of these rights as long as the necessary SOPs on health safety practices are observed," he added.

Various groups have expressed their intentions to hold protests in the form of a "mañanita," following a suggestion from Senator Francis Pangilinan to copy the mass gathering held earlier for Metro Manila chief Major General Debold Sinas' birthday.

President Rodrigo Duterte and various officials like Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and Philippine National Police chief Archie Gamboa all defended Sinas, but the latter ended up still being slapped with a criminal complaint. -MDM, GMA News