Rights group calls for political prisoners release amid COVID-19 outbreak

“We understand the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why we strongly urge the government to release political detainees for humanitarian reasons. If the government really understands the people’s clamor to contain the spread of the virus, the government should embrace in its efforts the most vulnerable in society, especially those detained and suffering in congested jails, by considering holistic, mass-oriented, scientific, and community-based actions and responses,” Karapatan Deputy Secretary General Roneo Clamor said.

Karapatan called for the release of political prisoners, especially the elderly,  sick with chronic, debilitating or terminal medical conditions, pregnant, those who are due for parole or pardon, at least one spouse each of political prisoner couples and accidental victims of political arrests.

 

Pregnant, sick, elderly political prisoners

Photo from Bayan Manila

Karapatan cited the plight of Reina Mae “Ina” Nacino, a woman political prisoner who is five-months pregnant currently detained at the Manila City Jail Female Dorm.

An urban poor organizer and cultural worker, Nacino was one of the three activists arrested at the office of Bayan in Tondo, Manila last November 5, 2019 on “trumped-up charges and planted evidence.”

The group also reported that the health of sick political prisoners such as 20-year-old Ge-Ann Perez, who suffers from leprosy, has been compromised by military forces depriving her of her medication and access to medical consultation, causing her ailment to relapse.

Photo from Philippine Army

Perez was arrested together with 66-year-old peace consultant Fr. Frank Fernandez, who is likewise suffering

Photo from Karapatan

from various physical ailments, and his wife Cleofe Lagtapon on March 24, 2019. Perez is presently detained at the Taguig City Jail – Female Dorm in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City.

Another case is that of Gerardo dela Peña, an 80-year old political detainee at the NBP which, according to data released last year, has a 300% congestion rate in its maximum compound.  Dela Peña was arrested in 2013 and was convicted at the age of 74. Dela Peña has hypertension, along with several other ailments.

 

Congested jails

The group said their demand is in support of the calls for immediate measures to address the dire situation of prisoners who are most vulnerable to the pandemic.

The group said the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) has recorded a 394% congestion rate.

There are 134,748 persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) nationwide. The occupancy of most populous jails in the country are:

  • 6,237 inmates in Cebu City Male Dormitory
  • 4,916 inmates in Manila City Jail
  • 3,821 inmates in Quezon City jail

The group also cited medical reports that stated “about 5,200 inmates at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City die annually due to overcrowding, disease and violence.”

“Social distancing and self-quarantine measures imposed as part of the ‘enhanced community quarantine’ cannot be properly implemented inside the detention facilities, because of overcrowding, poor sanitation and nutrition, lack of medical facilities and health personnel, placing the most vulnerable among the prisoners at greater risk of contracting the virus,” said Clamor.

This is contrary to the statement made by Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año who said that safer inside the detention cells “than outside mingling with the rest of the population.”

“With the suspension of visitation rights, the PDLs have no way of contacting the virus and are therefore much safer than all of us who are out in the open and exposed to the movement of people and the virus,” Año said on March 23.

Año issued the statement after some sectors called for the immediate release of political prisoners, elderly peace consultants and first-time and low-risk offenders.

“Contrary to the claims of some sectors, we have, in fact, the best intentions for PDLs that is why they should remain in jails. They will be more vulnerable and exposed to the virus if they are released at this time. All prison detention cells are COVID-free. That is the safest place right now,” Año said.

 

E-dalaw

Año added that the BJMP already implemented the electronic dalaw [visit] or “e-dalaw” as visitation in jails have been suspended.

With the e-Dalaw System, each inmate is allowed to have 10 to 15 minutes use of Skype and Facebook every day from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm so they can continue to communicate with their families and relatives outside the detention facilities.

This, however, the rights group find did not address the congested situation in jails that makes inmates vulnerable to catching disease while incarcerated and the lack of provisions especially for those who need certain food and medication.

Courts operations nationwide have already been suspended, so it may be up to the president until court operations resume whether release of prisoners may be legally effected now.

“The plight of our political prisoners who are suffering from illnesses, old age, or those pregnant must be urgently addressed by the government. We also reiterate our call to grant omnibus amnesty to all political prisoners and drop all the fabricated charges against them, and to release them on just and humanitarian grounds,” said Clamor.

 

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