Karapatan welcomes recommendations for release of prisoners, including political prisoners

Recommendations of the Philippine House of Representatives’ Committee on Justice for the decongestion of the country’s overcrowded jails through release of prisoners is a welcome and urgently needed move, human rights alliance Karapatan said, as the country combats the spread of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Karapatan reiterated that political detainees, most especially the sick and elderly, should be granted release on humanitarian grounds. 

“While we welcome the recommendations of the House justice committee for the temporary release of prisoners, we are also calling on the concerned agencies to act fast on these recommendations. We are racing against a timebomb and with every day that passes where vulnerable detainees are kept behind bars, the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic grows deadlier in our congested prisons. The government has a duty to uphold the life and security of prisoners and we cannot afford to lose more lives,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.

Various local and international human rights groups have called on the Philippine government to release vulnerable prisoners — including political prisoners — following the urgent appeal of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

Citing the release of prisoners in Iran, Germany, and the United States to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded detention facilities, the House justice committee recommended temporary release for first-time offenders, those who are 60 years of age and above, those with underlying health conditions associated with high risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19, among others. The recommendations have also been backed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

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. According to Karapatan’s data as of March 28, 2020, there are 609 political prisoners currently imprisoned in the various detention facilities in the country. 100 of them are women, 47 political prisoners are already elderly, while 63 suffer from serious ailments and debilitating illnesses.

In a joint statement urging governments to protect civil and political rights in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, thirty three international human rights and civil society organizations also called for the easing of “pressure on the prison system and lower the risk to the health of the prison population, and the population more broadly, by releasing detainees and in particular immediately and unconditionally releasing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience who were imprisoned for their human rights activities, or for expressing critical views.”

Palabay averred that “political prisoners are unjustly detained for manufactured and fabricated charges to malign their human rights work and political activism, and we have long been calling for their release on just and humanitarian grounds. Karapatan urges the House committee and all concerned agencies to include in their priorities political prisoners and expedite their release, especially since many of them are already sick or elderly and are very vulnerable to diseases like COVID-19.”

“We call on the Philippine government to ensure that all measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic must take into account and comply with international human rights obligations. Punitive measures like mass arrests of so-called quarantine violators target the poor and the economically vulnerable — and by detaining them in cramped cells in police precincts, arrests run the risk of further spreading the disease along with ultimately failing to address their socioeconomic needs. People’s rights must not be a casualty or a collateral damage in the fight against COVID-19,” she ended.