Karapatan welcomes UN call for release of political prisoners amid COVID-19 pandemic

Human rights alliance Karapatan reiterated the call to free all political prisoners in the Philippines on just and humanitarian grounds, following the urgent appeal of United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet for governments to protect people held in overcrowded detention centers and other closed centers from the threat of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We welcome the call of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the release of prisoners and those other populations housed in closed centers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Contrary to claims that detainees are safer from the pandemic, we assert that the necessary measures to combat the disease such as social distancing and self-quarantine policies are impossible in the country’s overcrowded and highly congested detention facilities, making them fertile grounds for disease outbreaks,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general.

According to Bachelet, the COVID-19 pandemic has started to affect “prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers, as well as homes for the elderly, psychiatric hospitals and other closed centers.” She called on governments to embrace in its efforts the populations housed in such institutions or else, “the consequences could be catastrophic.”

The UN High Commissioner also stressed in her appeal that, at this time, “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.”

Karapatan earlier asserted that 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 as the country, along with other nations, faces the threats posed by the pandemic. As per Karapatan’s data as of March 2020, there are 610 political prisoners in the Philippines, with 102 of them sick, many with life-threatening and debilitating illnesses, and 48 elderly.

In 2019, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology has recorded a 394% congestion rate. The Cebu City Jail has almost 6,000 inmates, while Manila City Jail houses over 5,000. Quezon City Jail, the third most populated prison in the country, has almost 3,700 detainees. Medical reports stated that about 5,200 inmates at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City die annually due to overcrowding, disease and violence. The overcrowding in prison has led to unmanageable outbreaks of pulmonary tuberculosis last year.

“With overcrowded prison spaces, the virus, which causes respiratory problems, makes those detained in such facilities highly vulnerable to be infected, especially old and sickly detainees. To be informed of a casualty inside detention centers is a scene we cannot afford. Since the beginning, we have continuously warned the Duterte regime to consider in its efforts the individuals staying inside closed centers,” Palabay said.

The UN High Commissioner also expressed concern that “some countries are threatening to impose prison sentences for those who fail to obey” quarantine measures which she said would “exacerbate the grave situation in prisons and do little to halt the spread of this killer disease.” Weeks into the Luzon-wide “enhanced community quarantine,” Karapatan has documented and received several complaints of warrantless arrests for alleged violators of quarantine measures, amid the warnings from law experts questioning the validity of such pronouncements and policies.

On March 15, seventeen UN special procedures have expressed that “emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.”

The Karapatan officer asserted that “punitive measures will do nothing but worsen the crisis. The government should instead exert its efforts to formulating and implementing comprehensive, people-centered and rights-based public health responses to avert the pandemic. We strongly reiterate UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s call that human rights should always be upheld, protected, and asserted.”

Full statement of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25745&LangID=E

Full statement of 17 UN Special Procedures: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25722&LangID=E