Karapatan: Delay of SC decision on release of political prisoners worsens COVID-19 crisis in prisons

Human rights watchdog Karapatan appealed to the Supreme Court to act decisively amid reports of the deferral of its decision on the petition for the humanitarian release of prisoners, including political prisoners, with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s detention facilities. Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay asserted that “with every day that vulnerable prisoners are not released, the lives of more and more prisoners are put at greater risk.”

“This is a matter of life and death for the thousands of prisoners in the country’s detention facilities. The Supreme Court should act urgently on the appeal of vulnerable political prisoners and their families before it’s too late,” she stated. 

According to Karapatan data as of March 28, 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. As of June 11, 745 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in Bureau of Jail and Management Penology facilities while 6 prisoners have already died due to the disease. In Bureau of Correction facilities, there are already 301 confirmed cases and 16 have already died due to the disease as of June 15.

Yesterday, June 23, the SC en banc confirmed to the media that they have again deferred their decision on the petition on Tuesday, June 30. Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta had earlier stated that a decision was expected on June 16, but the SC is still to reach a decision on the urgent petition which was filed last April 8, more than two months ago. Among those who filed the petition is pregnant political prisoner Reina Mae “Ina” Nasino, 23, who is due to give birth this July.

The Karapatan officer said that “even one death in our prisons should already be a cause for alarm for government officials. The high congestion rates, the lack of adequate medical and sanitation facilities, and the overall subhuman conditions in our detention facilities only mean that the highly contagious disease can spread faster, especially among the vulnerable, and diseases like COVID-19 can prove to be dangerous, even seriously fatal for pregnant women like Ina Nasino.” 

“Families of prisoners are also being kept in the dark about the actual situation in prisons. We are gravely worried by this lack of transparency, and we are sounding the alarm that the actual numbers of inmates who have been infected by the disease and its death toll in prisons might be severely underreported — with reports of prisoners dying with no clear cause of death, as thousands of prisoners in detention facilities all over the country remain untested,” she averred.

“The ticking timebomb we have long warned is now exploding and the government must act now before the pandemic turns into a full-blown catastrophe in our prisons. The Supreme Court must protect the lives and health of prisoners by heeding the appeal for the temporary humanitarian release of vulnerable prisoners. We cannot afford to lose more lives to the pandemic especially in such an inhumane manner,” she ended.