Two gas station workers in the Philippines were shocked when police were about to arrest them on attempted murder charges Thursday, with one breaking down in tears as an officer unexpectedly starting singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas!”
The prank, by police officers in the central Philippines city of Cebu, was meant to be a playful thank you for “deserving” workers during the pandemic. It included passing out gifts and was repeated at a fast food restaurant and a car dealership.
Christmas is a major holiday in the Catholic-majority country, and this year’s festivities have been especially emotional because of scaled-down celebrations necessary to contain the outbreak. But in a place where interactions with police have been linked with extrajudicial killings in a bloody war on drugs, the well-meaning attempt to spread holiday cheer has instead sparked outrage.
“I was scared of the handcuffs,” said one of the women at the gas station, according to a Facebook Live video of the encounter posted on the official page of the Cebu City police. Authorities only revealed that it was a joke after the pair had been read their rights and were being led to the squad car.
One live video viewed by VICE World News showed the police reading fake arrest warrants mentioning the name of a real judge as the signatory.
The prank triggered a chorus of criticism across social media and civil society.
“This is not funny,” attorney Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, told VICE World News. “With continuing criticism of the police being unprofessional and politicized, it is a bad joke and wry humor that unnerves and traumatizes unsuspecting citizens, especially given the track record and public perception of police conduct.”
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights assailed the “unnecessary display of power” by the police and reminded them to respect due process.
“Serving an arrest warrant is a law enforcement process that must be carried out within the rigors of due process and in the name of rule of law,” the commission said in a statement. “Such process should not be trifled with nor diminished into a prank for it impacts fundamental rights and law enforcement is no laughing matter.”
The police under President Rodrigo Duterte have been heavily criticized over a brutal crackdown on the drug trade that has left thousands of Filipinos dead since 2016. Some officers have been caught planting evidence or being involved in killings themselves.
Josefino Ligan, chief of the Cebu City police, defended the prank program and said that it had been going on for three years. He said the recipients were picked in partnership with businesses.
“The health conditions of the unsuspecting workers were carefully assessed prior to the conduct of the prank,” he said in a press briefing.
Alfredo Tan, chair of the Police Advisory Council, was quoted as saying that the intention of the project was “pure.”
“We would like to give a memorable, delightful, and joyful experience to the recipient,” he said.
The Philippine National Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment but the chief of police stopped the program and said in a television interview that he would look into the matter.