Amid the lethal impact of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, human rights group Karapatan called for the release of political prisoners, especially the elderly, sick with chronic, debilitating or terminal medical conditions, pregnant, those who are due for parole or pardon, at least one spouse each of political prisoner couples and accidental victims of political arrests. Karapatan asserted that these releases should be made on just and humanitarian grounds, as they supported calls for immediate measures to address the dire situation of prisoners who are most vulnerable to the pandemic.
“We understand the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why we strongly urge the government to release political detainees for humanitarian reasons. If the government really understands the people’s clamor to contain the spread of the virus, the government should embrace in its efforts the most vulnerable in society, especially those detained and suffering in congested jails, by considering holistic, mass-oriented, scientific, and community-based actions and responses,” Karapatan Deputy Secretary General Roneo Clamor said.
Last year, 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 (MCJ) 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 (NBP) 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.
Clamor averred that the government should urgently consider the congested conditions of detention facilities in the country and that they are in no way safe from the pandemic, contrary to statements made by Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año. “Social distancing and self-quarantine measures imposed as part of the ‘enhanced community quarantine’ cannot be properly implemented inside the detention facilities, because of overcrowding, poor sanitation and nutrition, lack of medical facilities and health personnel, placing the most vulnerable among the prisoners at greater risk of contracting the virus.”
The Karapatan officer particularly cited the plight of Reina Mae “Ina” Nacino, a woman political prisoner who is five-months pregnant currently detained at the Manila City Jail – Female Dorm. An urban poor organizer and cultural worker, Nacino was one of the three activists arrested at the office of Bayan in Tondo, Manila last November 5, 2019 on trumped-up charges and planted evidence.
The health of sick political prisoners such as 20-year-old Ge-Ann Perez, who suffers from leprosy, has been compromised by military forces depriving her of her medication and access to medical consultation, causing her ailment to relapse. Perez was arrested together with 66-year-old peace consultant Fr. Frank Fernandez, who is likewise suffering from various physical ailments, and his wife Cleofe Lagtapon on March 24, 2019. Perez is presently detained at the Taguig City Jail – Female Dorm in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City.
Another case is that of Gerardo dela Peña, an 80-year old political detainee at the NBP which, according to data released last year, has a 300% congestion rate in its maximum compound. Dela Peña was arrested in 2013 and was convicted at the age of 74. Dela Peña has hypertension, along with several other ailments.
“As we reiterate the call for comprehensive, people-centered and rights-based public health responses to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the plight of our political prisoners who are suffering from illnesses, old age, or those pregnant must be urgently addressed by the government. We also reiterate our call to grant omnibus amnesty to all political prisoners and drop all the fabricated charges against them, and to release them on just and humanitarian grounds,” the Karapatan officer ended. ###