Karapatan: Stop the delays, stop the excuses, release political prisoners now!

No more excuses and no more delays for the release of political prisoners, human rights group Karapatan strongly asserted, as the Supreme Court (SC) is set to deliberate today, April 17, on the petition seeking the temporary release of sick and elderly detainees to combat the spread of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic inside the country’s highly congested prisons.

“The mass decongestion of detention facilities is a matter of life and death for the thousands of prisoners in country especially amid the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports of inmates being isolated for suspected infection should be a cause for great alarm, especially since quarantine measures such as physical distancing are almost impossible in our overcrowded jails,” Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general urged. “Philippine jails are ticking time-bombs — and we cannot afford to waste more time. Political prisoners, especially the sick and the elderly, must be released now on humanitarian grounds.”

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology said nine inmates at the Quezon City Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, according to President Rodrigo Duterte’s third weekly report to the Congress last April 7, there are 74 inmates in Bureau of Correction facilities being isolated for suspected COVID-19 infection. In the Correctional Institution for Women, there are currently 30 suspected COVID-19 infection cases, while overcrowding at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City has led to unmanageable outbreaks of pulmonary tuberculosis last year. Despite these reports, Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Menardo Guevarra stated that they need at least another week to study the proposals for the release of low-risk offenders.

The Karapatan officer averred: “We cannot afford delays amid a disaster in the making — a disaster that will cost hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Every single day counts in order to avert this catastrophe, and the DOJ, the SC, and all the concerned agencies must heed our calls and act now.”

Last April 8, Karapatan assisted and joined families of political prisoners in filing before the SC a petition urgently appealing for the temporary release of prisoners, including sick and elderly political prisoners, in the country. Various local and international human rights groups have also mounted calls for the Philippine government to free detainees vulnerable to the disease for humanitarian reasons. The Philippine House of Representatives’ Committee on Justice has also recommended the decongestion of the country’s overcrowded jails. 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.

“The government has the duty to uphold and protect the lives and security of prisoners, most especially amid this pandemic. Any delay can cost many lives — and we cannot waste more time and we cannot afford to lose more lives to the disease. We urgently reiterate our urgent demand that prisoners, especially political prisoners suffering from sickness, the elderly, nursing mothers, and pregnant women must be granted temporary liberty on just and humanitarian grounds as soon as possible,” she concluded.