- J Watford
This image of Fabel Pineda is the third one I have painted. The first two were based on photos that accompanied most news articles about her death. What they showed was a young woman on the verge of adulthood, not the 15-year-old child that she was. It took a few searches through social media for me to find a photo reference that captured her youth. That I had to do this to emphasize that a 15-year-old girl is not an adult is absurd, but this is where we are. In the time of Duterte, a murdered child can be depicted as a dangerous criminal, a useless lollygagger, a gang member, a curfew-breaking seductress.
It was not a child that the two policemen who sexually assaulted Fabel saw on the night of 28 June 2020 in San Juan, Ilocos Sur. Fabel and her 18-year-old cousin, Bernadette, were walking home from a friend's birthday party. The cops apprehended the girls for violating the lockdown curfew and then offered to accompany them home. Instead of doing this, the two men took the girls on their motorbikes to a secluded area and assaulted them. They then warned Fabel and Bernadette against reporting their crime to the police.
They didn't see Fabel as a child; they didn't see her as human at all. To them, she and Bernadette were mere objects that they could brutalise without repercussions. In the time of Duterte, you can get away with pretty much anything if you're a cop, from quarantine violations to massacres. They definitely didn't expect the girls to find a way to fight back.
On 2 July, Fabel went to the police station of the neighbouring municipality of Cabugao to file a complaint against the two cops. She was accompanied by an uncle and a cousin. Fabel and her relatives asked for a police escort for their journey home, aware that the rapist cops would be alerted to Fabel's action. The women's desk officer turned them down and apparently derided them, saying, 'What, do you expect us to just watch over you?'
As Fabel and her cousin sat behind her uncle on his motorbike on their way home, another motorbike deliberately swerved into their path, causing them to fall over. The two men riding on that bike then approached Fabel and shot her several times. She died before her relatives and passers-by could take her to the hospital.
Fabel's mother, Blessie, was a domestic worker in Kuwait. Her employer gave her permission to go home but refused to shoulder the cost of her flight. The distressed mother had to contact the Ilocos Sur government for help. It took almost two weeks after her daughter's murder before she could fly home, along with 300 other Filipinos being repatriated from the country because of the pandemic.
When government officials expedited Blessie's Covid test so she could travel back to her hometown straight away, they couldn't help but post self-congratulatory press releases, claiming that Blessie 'cried tears of joy' over the help that she received. In the time of Duterte, government officials rely on callous vaingloriousness to convince themselves that they're doing a good job.
It would be another week before Fabel was laid to rest, because of quarantine protocol. Blessie and the rest of Fabel's family promised to fight for justice. Police officials promised to help them. The two cops were arrested and dismissed from service, according to the police chief. The Cabugao police chief and the women's desk officer were charged with obstruction of justice. The wheels of justice seemed to have started grinding.
Except that they're not. According to a statement released by the Commission on Human Rights in January 2021, only one of the murder suspects has been dismissed from service. The other one, whom Fabel identified as her molester, has been cleared due to a lack of evidence. I guess to the police, a dead victim equates to zero evidence. Despite the police claiming that murder charges have been brought against them, both men are still in 'restrictive custody,' instead of a normal jail where civilian suspects are usually squeezed into. Restrictive custody, according to the Supreme Court, 'is, at best, nominal restraint.' It's definitely not a punishment. Despite strong evidence and government condemnation, Fabel's killers have yet to pay for their crimes.
Fabel's murder outraged many Filipinos last year, but their anger didn't suffice for the police to do the right thing even just this once. In the time of Duterte, impunity persists, and justice remains an elusive dream.