By: Our Correspondent

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte apparently has extended his “war on drugs” to what are described as tambays, loiterers and vagrants who congregate on city streets in poor neighborhoods to drink beer and talk.

The roundup has alarmed human rights advocates who say they fear the anti-loitering drive could also spark extrajudicial killings.

So far, according to Human Rights Watch and others, as many as 8,000 of the poor have been rounded up. Police officials, however, said only a few loiterers were actually arrested while most were confronted or asked to pay fines.

The death of a 25-year-old tambay named Genesis Argoncillo, however, makes that statement seem contradictory at best. Argoncillo was said to have been held in a cell meant for 40 with 135 others. It was so overcrowded, according to reports, that half the inmates took turns standing up while the others sat or reclined. Other prisoners said Argoncillo stood when he shouldn’t have and other inmates beat him to death.  Others estimate half a dozen have died in the crackdown.

Although police originally attributed the death to “difficulty breathing,” a death certificate made public in the local media indicated that Argoncello’s body bore signs of foul play including “multiple blunt force trauma” in his “neck, head, chest, and upper extremities,” according to Human Rights Watch.

There are indications “that the police enforcement of the anti-loitering campaign is arbitrarily ensnaring Filipinos who are lawfully on the streets at night,” the New York-based NGO said in a prepared news release. “Two call center agents complained that police arrested them on June 16 for “loitering” as they stood on a street corner outside a friend’s house. The arresting officers have since been dismissed.”

Vice President Leni Robredo, who has emerged as one of Duterte’s chief critics, accused the president of  “giving law enforcement officials the license to abuse. We saw this danger during the peak of anti-drug war. We are repeating it again” after Duterte earlier said publicly that streets should be cleared of tambays to “lessen crime and maintain peace and order”

Later, Duterte said he hadn’t told police to arrest loiterers. However, police appeared to have interpreted the president’s words with a vengeance. Later, after criticism, National Capital Region Police Office Director Guillermo Eleazar ordered all police chiefs in Metro Manila to call those apprehended as “violators of local ordinances” instead of “loiterers” or “tambay”

By one count, in contrast to Human Rights Watch’s estimate, about 3,000 have been arrested in Manila for loitering, violating city curfew ordinances, public smoking, nudity and drinking on the streets. How many have been arrested in other cities is uncertain. As with the drug war, Manila is taking the brunt of the enforcement.

“The Philippine National Police should immediately end a “crime prevention” campaign that has disproportionately targeted “loiterers” in low-income areas of Manila and other cities,” said Human Rights Watch, which said that since June 13, police have arrested more than 8,000 people and detained many in detention facilities already dangerously overcrowded due to mass surrenders of drug suspects linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

Typically, according to the New York-based NGO, they are not brought before a judge, but rather detained for a period and then released, though sometimes criminal charges are brought. Police have focused the anti-loitering campaign in the same communities that have been the epicenter of summary killings.

Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 12,000 people have been executed in the drug war since mid-2016. The government puts the figure at fewer than 4,000. Opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes, in a speech before the Senate, said that while the administration reports that 3,967 “drug personalities” had been killed after allegedly resisting arrest during between July 1, 2016 and November 27, 2017, another 16,355 homicide cases  during the same period have been classified as “under investigation”

“The Philippine National Police are conducting a ‘crime prevention’ campaign that essentially jails low-income Filipinos for being in public,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This campaign threatens to retraumatize residents of communities already terrorized by ‘drug war’ executions and is risking the detainees’ health and safety.”

Several thousand suspects, Kine said, are detained in grossly overcrowded detention centers with poor and inhumane health and hygiene conditions.

“Overcrowding of Philippine jails has long made them hazardous to detainees’ health because of inadequate food, ventilation, health care, and toilet facilities,” he said. “As a result, pulmonary illnesses such as tuberculosis, skin infections, diarrhea, and sepsis run rampant among detainees. Torture and other forms of ill-treatment are also common.”

The campaign against “loiterers” is based on long-existing local ordinances prohibiting men from being shirtless and other offenses,” Human Rights Watch said. “It has provoked intensive public backlash by evoking memories of arbitrary police targeting of the urban poor during the 1972-1981 martial law period under the late President Ferdinand Marcos. The government has sought to counter that criticism by insisting that it is merely pursuing a legitimate crime-prevention campaign and that it will not affect citizens “who do nothing wrong.”

The Philippine National Police are again demonstrating their preference for wielding fear, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest to target vulnerable communities rather than respect for the rule of law,” Kine said. “The Philippine government should protect the basic rights of all Filipinos rather than let the police demolish them on the pretext of a ‘crime prevention’ campaign.”