Karapatan calls for release of political prisoners amid COVID-19 pandemic in online campaign

In an online campaign, human rights group Karapatan, together with friends and families of political prisoners, peace advocates, civil libertarians, and church workers reiterated its urgent appeal for the release of prisoners, including political prisoners on just and humanitarian grounds as the country grapples with the threat of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“With the hashtags #SetThemFree and #FreePoliticalPrisonersPH, we want to enjoin the public in this social media campaign to learn about the struggle of the hundreds of political prisoners in the country and why they should be immediately released. These are people who have been unjustly detained for their political beliefs and activism, and slapped with trumped-up charges to justify their imprisonment. Many of them are already advanced in age and suffering from debilitating illnesses,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.

Karapatan’s online campaign follows the appeal of relatives of political prisoners and the call of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet for governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention since, in many countries, “detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.” The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology posted a 450% jail congestion rate nationwide on October last year, with 380 out 467 detention facilities in the country filled beyond capacity.

“The campaign also raises alarm over the high congestion rates, lack of clean water, sanitation, and adequate medical services and facilities in the country’s prisons. We fear that these conditions — which make measures such as physical distancing impossible — make our detention facilities fertile ground for deadly disease outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic. These inhumane conditions in prisons imperil the life and health of detainees, particularly the sick, the elderly, as well as pregnant women and nursing mothers,” Palabay continued.

The High Commissioner also stressed in her appeal that “[n]ow, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.” According to Karapatan’s data as of March 28, 2020, there are 609 political prisoners in the country. 100 of them are women. 47 political prisoners are already elderly while 63 suffer from serious ailments.

The Karapatan officer also slammed the arrests of thousands of alleged violators of the measures of the “enhanced community quarantine.” From March 17 to 29, 2020, the Philippine National Police arrested 17,039 violators in the entire country. The High Commissioner expressed deep concern in her appeal “that some countries are threatening to impose prison sentences for those who fail to obey” and warned that such policy “is likely to exacerbate the grave situation in prisons and do little to halt the disease’s spread.”

“With the very high congestion rates of jails in the country, the punitive State policy of mass arrests will only worsen the already dismal conditions in the country’s detention facilities. It is also an alarming indication of the Duterte administration’s militarist priorities in responding to this pandemic: we have 17,039 arrested for allegedly violating quarantine measures while only 3,938 people have been tested as of March 31, 2020. Certain government officials even crowded out patients who needed testing most. Medical measures should be at the forefront of this public health crisis, and the government should comprehensively address the people’s legitimate socio-economic concerns if it genuinely wants to stem the spread of the pandemic,” she averred.

“In this online campaign, we urgently reiterate the need for mass decongestion of prisons — and political prisoners, especially the elderly, sick with chronic, debilitating or terminal medical conditions, pregnant and nursing mothers, those who are due for parole or pardon, at least one spouse each of political prisoner couples and accidental victims of political arrests, should be released immediately on humanitarian grounds. The State policy that we also need now are public health measures like mass testing, not militarist and punitive measures like mass arrests that only criminalize and punish the poor and the marginalized while failing to address their legitimate needs and demands,” the Karapatan officer ended.