By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – While human rights lawyers and relatives of political prisoners welcomed the recent Supreme Court’s (SC) circular ordering the release of inmates with lapsed jail time and shelved cases, they also urged the high court to resolve immediately the petition seeking for the temporary release of the sick, elderly and pregnant prisoners.
The SC through the Office of the Court Administrator released on April 20 Circular No. 91-2020 setting guidelines on the release of prisoners who have served more than the minimum penalty and those whose cases are delayed due to the lack of essential witnesses.
Court Administrator Midas Marquez said in the circular that “all judges of the first and second level courts are directed to immediately conduct an inventory of their pending criminal cases to determine if they have cases which may be covered by the Guidelines, and if so, to comply with the said Guidelines without unnecessary delay, using their sound discretion.”
READ: OCA Circular No. 91-2020 addressed to all judges of the first and second level courts regarding the Release of Qualified Persons Deprived of Liberty April 20, 2020
National Union of Peoples Lawyers (NUPL) Secretary General Ephraim Cortez said the SC circular is “already a positive move for the decongestion of the detention facilities in the Philippines.”
Cortez said that they hope that the SC decide immediately on the petition they filed seeking for the release of the sick, elderly and pregnant political prisoners and other inmates on humanitarian grounds. There are 22 political prisoners who are included in the petition. The petition also includes persons deprived of liberty who have the same conditions and vulnerable to contract the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). (Read: SC urged to release sick, elderly political prisoners amid COVID-19)
“We hope that the SC act once they received the Solicitor General’s response before or by the end of April because of later (than that), may be it is too late,” Cortez said in an online forum held on April 21 dubbed as Know Your Rights.
Given the urgency of the situation, Cortez said they are also preparing a reply to the Solicitor General once they have responded to the SC.
Kapatid, an organization of friends and relatives of political prisoners, also welcomed the SC’s circular, saying “it is a significant breakthrough ahead of the SC’s decision on their petition.”
“It shows that the High Court is well cognizant of and taking action on the imperative need to decongest jails through the release of prisoners amid the lethal COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fides Lim, spokesperson of Kapatid, in a statement.
Lim said the guidelines should also include the include the elderly, the sick and pregnant prisoners as this is the thrust of their petition that “covers not only political prisoners but also all other prisoners similarly at risk.”
Lim said that they hope that the municipal and regional trial courts will act swiftly to conduct an inventory of pending cases and to determine the release of persons deprived of liberty.
“We call on the lawyers of prisoners to likewise move rapidly to file motions for recognizance and the provisional dismissal of cases as a humanitarian act to save their imprisoned clients from the lethal COVID-19 contagion, which is now rapidly invading prison facilities,” Lim said.
Political prisoners getting sick
Lim underscored the urgency of their plea, saying that political prisoners are getting sick in this time of the pandemic.
“One after the other, many of the political prisoners had fever. Some have recovered quickly,” said Lim in the online forum.
Dr. Geneve Rivera-Reyes of Health Alliance for Human Rights said that the lack of health facilities in the detention centers makes inmates very vulnerable once there is an outbreak of the disease.
Rivera said the only detention facility with a decent health care facility is the Maximum Compound of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City. Health care workers are also lacking.
“Some detention centers have clinics but have no doctors. There are only two to three doctors for the thousands of PDLs [persons deprived of liberty] in the whole capital,” Reyes said.
Proof of the lack of health care workers and health care facilities is the contagion of tuberculosis, which according to Reyes, is the number one disease that plague the detainees.
With the current situation, Reyes said the Department of Health (DOH) should be advocating for the release of prisoners since the agency “has the most and scientific knowledge about the disease.” She said there should have been special guidelines regarding the PDLs’ release.
Cortez said that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) is likely to oppose their petition.
“There is a chance of non-political prisoners to be temporarily released, but we are not certain on the political prisoners. For sure there will be a resistance on that part by the NTF-Elcac,” said Cortez.
NUPL Spokesperson Josalee Deinla also said that in the NTF-Elcac’s annual report, the dismissal of the writ of Amparo case of Karapatan et al and the NUPL and the perjury case filed by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. against Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay et al, were considered by the task forces as “highlights of the year or success.”