Test, test, test, not arrest, arrest, arrest —Karapatan

Conduct mass testing and not mass arrests, human rights alliance Karapatan urged authorities as they reiterated their urgent appeal for the release of political prisoners and the mass decongestion of detention facilities in the country to stem the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Continuing the punitive policy of arresting alleged quarantine violators combined with the lack of the needed public health measures to combat the pandemic is “a deadly disaster in the making” for the country’s highly congested prisons where measures like physical distancing and isolation are virtually impossible, Karapatan warned.

“We are running out of time. One inmate from the Quezon City Jail had already died because of suspected COVID-19 infection. With every passing day that the government refuses to conduct mass testing while arresting thousands for violating quarantine measures, they are risking the lives of thousands of detainees. We urgently reiterate our demand that they release political prisoners on just and humanitarian grounds, especially the sick, the elderly, nursing mothers, and pregnant women,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.

Karapatan expressed support for the families of political prisoners led by Kapatid who filed a petition before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, April 8, seeking to grant temporary liberty on humanitarian grounds to prisoners belonging to vulnerable or at-risk groups.

According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, 15 inmates at the Quezon City Jail (QCJ) have been isolated after coming into contact with an inmate who died of suspected COVID-19 infection last March 25. The QCJ houses almost 3,700 detainees and is the third most populated prison in the country. Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año earlier claimed that Philippine jails are 100% COVID-19-free, rejecting calls of human rights groups for the release of political detainees as well as first-time and low risk offenders.

Palabay averred that “the mere fact that prisoners cannot practice physical distancing should already be a red flag. Combined with the overall inadequacy of medical services, clean water, and sanitation, and the lack of testing protocols for prisoners, detention facilities are the ultimate petri-dish for deadly disease outbreaks like COVID-19. The government must act now and heed our urgent appeal, or the consequences will be disastrous for prisoners, especially the most vulnerable.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has earlier called on governments for the release of political prisoners and that imprisonment should be a matter of last resort amid this public health crisis. Karapatan’s urgent appeal has been supported by various local and international human rights organizations such as the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) along with demands for the Philippine government to end the detention and ill-treatment of quarantine violators. 

“Arrests of quarantine violators have led to abuses of authority through inhumane, cruel, and degrading punishment such being locked up in dog cages or being hit with sticks. Detaining quarantine violators in cramped cells in police precincts also defeats the whole purpose of physical distancing — and it has targeted the poor, especially the informal sector and transport workers who are going out of their homes out of desperation to feed their families and save their livelihood with the lack of sufficient economic assistance and relief from the government,” the Karapatan officer stated.

As of April 1, data from the Philippine National Police showed that a total of 20,389 individuals have been arrested for supposedly violating the measures imposed as part of the enhanced community quarantine. The 21 residents of the urban poor community of Sitio San Roque who were arrested last April 1 for demanding food aid from the local government were released on Monday, April 6, after posting bail. Nineteen vegetable vendors along Elliptical Road who were arrested last April 4 for “illegal street vending” were also released on Tuesday, April 7.

“We reiterate that mass arrests do not address mass hunger — they only worsen them. Without mass testing, quarantine measures become tantamount to mass incarceration, especially for the poor who are left with no choice but to have nothing to eat on their tables or have themselves arrested for setting foot outside their homes. Karapatan asserts its appeal for the release of political prisoners on just and humanitarian grounds to combat the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to end the detention of alleged quarantine violators. Instead of militarist and punitive policies, the government should address the people’s legitimate demands for public health and socioeconomic measures,” she ended.