Taken after midnight, cuffed to a chair: The arrest of Cebuana artist Bambi Beltran
CEBU CITY, Philippines – It was around 12:30 am on Sunday, April 19, when police arrived at Kukuks Nest on Gorordo Avenue.
Maria Victoria “Bambi” Beltran, 58, was in her room on the second floor writing stories.
The bedroom door and gate were wide open as usual. While this seemed out of the ordinary, on a normal weekend, Bambi would have little reason to feel afraid keeping the doors unlocked.
Because on a normal weekend, the floor at the bar and cafe downstairs would be full of people having their drinks and smoking cigarettes out front. The law students could be unwinding after a tough day of bar exam review. Or the writers in another corner could be having poetry reading, while a guitarist was strumming, drunk, with his barkada singing along.
The nights have been quiet for Bambi since the lockdown began in Cebu City. After March 28, no restaurants were allowed to have dine-in customers, no alcohol could be served, and gathering in groups more than 10 were forbidden.
Who doesn't know Bambi?
In Cebu’s art community, everyone knows Bambi.
She's an award-winning writer of short stories, screenplays and Visayan poetry, and an actor in the Visayan independent film scene.
On weekends Bambi would regularly come down from her room, grab a cigarette and beer, and would talk – in her signature deep husky voice – with her regulars.
On a normal weekend, she would have little reason to be afraid with her friends, staff, and regular customers watching out for her downstairs.
But since there were no customers that weekend, the police took liberties and let themselves up.
“I asked who they were and the man told me they came to arrest me,” Beltran told Rappler in an interview. “I asked for a warrant of arrest and his answer was that he will handcuff me if I refuse to go.”
The ordeal was linked to a Facebook post she made a day prior about the coronavirus situation in Sitio Zapatera, Barangay Luz, when the local health department said they would consider the entire area "contaminated."
"9,000+ new cases (all from Zapatera) of Covid-19 in Cebu City in one day. We are now the epicenter in the whole solar system," her post said.
The post got 4 shares when it was screen grabbed by Mayor Edgar Labella’s official account.
He replied: “This is FAKE NEWS and this is a criminal act. Just wait Ms Beltran, you'll soon be caught by the PNP Cybercrime Unit. You'll really be thrown in prison."
After Labella threatened Beltran with arrest, she took down her post and issued this statement on her Facebook page.
"Upon advice of counsel, [I] had temporarily taken down the post characterized by the Hon. Mayor Edgar Labella was fake news and violative of our laws," Beltran said, apologizing to the mayor.
She said that "even an ordinary person without the benefit of being exposed to the finer qualities of literature" should understand that the post was satirical.
After taking down the post, she thought that would be the end of the story.
‘It’s really happening’
“I was thinking no, Labella will not do this. Then when it finally happened, I said oh shit, it's really happening, just keep your cool," she said.
Bambi had reason to doubt he would carry out his threat.
For one, Cebu City has been dealing with a pandemic and numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases were skyrocketing. And second, Bambi and Labella had been friends for nearly 3 decades. Both share a history of being part of the city's film heritage.
Labella’s father was a famous director of Visayan films and his mother was a theater actress.
According to Bambi, the ex-Ombudsman Visayas-director-turned-mayor was also her lawyer in another matter several years ago.
But local officials across the country have been quick to make use of a vague “fake news” provision in the Bayanihan to Heal as One emergency law, passed in March.
Former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te criticized the "fake news" subparagraph because it is not defined in the law.
"Since there is no law that criminalizes or defines fake news as a crime, and the special powers law does not also define what fake news is, it cannot be criminalized. That would be void," Te had previously told Rappler.
It had not been used yet in Cebu City, so when the police entered her bedroom early Sunday morning, she was calm.
“I powered off my laptop inside. I took another bag where I transferred my laptop and cell phone with their chargers together. Then I stood up and put my pants on,” Bambi said.
She was only wearing an oversized shirt and said the police were still in the room when she was changing.
“He instructed me to bring my laptop because it might be used as evidence,” she said.
When she walked outside, Bambi saw two other men waiting. “There were two cars, one red Altis, and one multicab, I think from the barangay, and they put me in the multicab,” she said.
She was taken to the Police Regional Office 7 headquarters in Camp Sergio Osmeña on Jones Avenue, where the PRO-7 cybercrime unit is located.
“I was brought inside the conference room, they switched on the aircon and let me sit on a plastic chair. They then handcuffed me to the chair,” Bambi recounted.
“They informed me that the ‘chief’ will arrive to talk to me.” She wasn’t told his name, except that everyone called him “the chief.”
He arrived at around 2:30 am, Bambi said.
They then had a discussion about her post and why it was considered a cybercrime. “I told him I just quoted CDN, Freeman, SunStar and CNN and it was a satirical post,” she said.
After "the chief" left, she was left in the conference room without instructions on how she would be allowed to rest. “I was still cuffed to the chair. I maneuvered myself over to a plastic sofa where I thought would be the best place to sleep,” she said.
At around 6 am, she woke up to the sound of men playing basketball and asked if she could use the restroom.
“At first, he did not want to take my handcuffs off and I told him it’s impossible to do ‘my business.’”
At around 11 am, she was moved to a holding cell. “I asked my escort why they’re placing me in the men’s section and his answer was that to make it easier for them – that they will only have to watch one place,” she said.
While this was happening, a staff of Kukuks who was asleep when the arrest happened was only finding out that Bambi was missing after posting a callout to friends on Facebook to locate her.
According to Bambi, Brigadier General Albert Ferro, Central Visayas’ police director, came to interrogate her at around 11:30 am.
She said: “He asked me if I’m a member of Bayan Muna and I said no. That the only affiliation I have is with art groups. I told him you can say I’m Labella’s ‘man’ because he appointed me to the Cebuano Cinema Film Development Council.”
She said he seemed surprised that she mentioned being an appointee of the mayor. But he continued to insist that her post was “fake news.”
“I told him the same thing I told ‘the chief,’” Bambi said. “The talk became a bit amiable and I felt confident enough to chide him why they wouldn’t arrest Mocha, or the President for that matter because they are also purveyors of fake news,” Bambi added.
At this point, local news had already reported on Bambi’s arrest, that it was warrantless, and that it was over a Facebook post.
Bambi said she was not allowed to use her phone and was unaware of the social media conversations happening outside.
Ferro addressed the manner of Bambi’s arrest during a press conference on Monday, April 20.
“There are several requirements if we want to conduct a warrantless arrest. One is if he committed a crime, is committing, has committed. For this instance he has committed a crime of making false information. Fake news. Very obvious naman. Even she admitted na they have that kind of posting at the website,” said Ferro.
“That’s why we are arresting her. She is just creating an atmosphere of fear. She is not anymore helping,” said Ferro.
This was the same explanation her longtime friend Labella gave for why he had her arrested. “He insinuated, like the chief [Ferro] before, that it’s really a police matter and out of his hands,” Bambi said.
Asked to comment on the incident, Labella told Rappler on Friday, May 22, that it would already be "improper" to comment on the case. "It is nothing personal, it would already be sub judice. Let's let the courts carry out the process," the mayor said. (READ: Labella on arrest of Cebu artist Bambi Beltran: ‘It’s nothing personal’)
While Labella said he was just implementing the law, Bambi felt the books were being thrown at her.
‘Made an example’
She was charged with violating Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Law; Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One law; and Republic Act 1132, or the violation of mandatory reporting of certain diseases.
"I was made an example," Beltran said.
Her bail totaled P42,000 for all charges. If convicted, she could face 12 to 18 years in prison and a fine of up to P1 million.
It was only after Labella left past 4 pm on Sunday, April 19, that she was allowed to see her legal counsel Ben Militar, who was waiting outside.
According to Amando Ligutan, another member of Bambi’s legal team, not allowing Bambi to see her lawyer and allowing the accuser access to her was against the law.
“The mayor, who is the accuser, talked to Ms Beltran while Ms Beltran was inside the police station,” Ligutan told ANC in an interview on Tuesday, April 21.
He said they planned to file counter charges against the mayor for violating the rights of the accused, protected under Republic Act 7438, or the custodial investigation law.
“Ms Beltran's lawyer was not allowed to enter because of the presence of the mayor,” Ligutan added.
She was held for another night and released Tuesday afternoon, April 22. For her “sarcastic” Facebook post, Bambi was held for a total of 60 hours and faces jail time and fines, if convicted of the 3 charges.
While Bambi said she would give the mayor the benefit of the doubt, she would still fight for her rights when the courts return to normal.
“Of course, this changes things,” she said of her friendship with the mayor.
According to Philippine and international human rights groups, Bambi's case was an example of the government using the public health emergency as an excuse to limit civil rights.
Manila-based Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) slammed Bambi’s arrest. “The recent wave of warrantless arrests for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ is deplorable because it tramples on one of our most cherished freedoms – the freedom to speak freely,” FLAG said in its statement in April. (READ: Human rights orgs urge gov’t to drop charges vs Cebu artist Bambi Beltran)
“The arrests are also dangerous because they are the product of the unbridled discretion of the police, unchecked by the cold neutrality of an impartial judge," they said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the government was “misusing” COVID-19 laws on “fake news” against critics.
"Philippine authorities are increasingly using the COVID-19 pandemic and new public health restrictions as an excuse to charge political opponents and activists with criminal offenses," HRW said in its statement.
On May 7, Bambi was selected as one of 17 laureates of the 2020 Deutsche Welle (DW) Freedom of Speech Award. She was the only artist among 17 laureates, while the rest were journalists covering the pandemic.
Bambi said that while she was arrested for a single post, she believes that the reason for her arrest goes deeper than that.
"I thought that it was not him, that he was just a puppet, that someone was putting him up to it,” she said of the arrest. “I feel like it's not really about that post. It's about me being vocal against the President. They just thought I slipped with that post, that they can get me now,” she added.
Labella was the chosen candidate of the President, whose resources and support helped him unseat popular scion and rival Tomas Osmeña in the 2019 midterm election.
Bambi said she took away 3 important lessons from her arrest: "First, keep your cool; second, trust in your friends and the universe; and third, if you have friends like that [Labella], who needs enemies?" – Rappler.com
TOP PHOTO. BAMBI BELTRAN. Cebu artist Maria Victoria Beltran faces criminal charges over a Facebook post she made in April. Photo from Bambi Beltran's Facebook page.