#SetThemFree | Groups support campaign to release prisoners amid COVID-19 pandemic

“This is a time for saving lives through much-needed grace and ingenuity. An undeniable threat of catastrophe hovers over jails, filled far beyond capacity in the Philippines. Decongesting facilities will help secure the lives of detainees and jail personnel.”

By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
Bulatlat.com
April 1, 2020

MANILA – Following the recent call of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to protect the health and safety of people in detention, different groups and individuals have echoed calls for the release of political prisoners to decongest overcrowded prisons in the country.

On March 31, Karapatan led the online campaign with hashtags, #SetThemFree and #FreePoliticalPrisonersPH to urgently appeal for the release of prisoners including political prisoners.

Bachelet stressed, “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”

Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said they aim for the public to know about the struggles of the hundreds of political prisoners in the Philippines and why they should be immediately released.

“These are people who have been unjustly detained for their political beliefs and activism, and slapped with trumped-up charges to justify their imprisonment. Many of them are already advanced in age and suffering from debilitating illnesses,” Palabay said in a statement.

Using the internet, relatives and supporters added their voices to those who are clamoring for the release of their loved ones who are unjustly imprisoned for years.

Not ordinary times

“These are not ordinary times,” said Catholic Bishop Gerardo Alminaza in a statement.“This is a time for saving lives through much-needed grace and ingenuity. An undeniable threat of catastrophe hovers over jails, filled far beyond capacity in the Philippines. Decongesting facilities will help secure the lives of detainees and jail personnel.”

The bishop said President Duterte’s administration should act immediately to decongest prisons, conduct mass testing and provide separate quarantine facilities.

“Or else, God forbid, prisons and those in them may sink like the ill-fated Diamond Princess and other cruise ships, as social/physical distancing and self-isolation are spatially impossible,” Alminaza said further.

Peasant group Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) also joined the call, saying that most of the political prisoners are peasants and union leaders who simply exercise their civil and political rights by asserting the people’s right to land, just wages and job security.

Antonio Flores, UMA chairperson, said the Duterte administration can avoid the loss of thousands of lives in decongesting the country’s detention facilities by following the call of Bachelet and the people.

Congestion in prison

Palabay said the online campaign also aims to raise alarm on the condition of detention facilities in the country which has high congestion rates, lacking of clean water, sanitation, and adequate medical services and facilities.

Karapatan said data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) showed that as of October 2019, jail congestion rate is at 450 percent. In 467 detention facilities in the Philippines, at least 380 are congested. The most populated jail is Cebu City Jail with 6,000 inmates, second is Manila City Jail with over 5,000 and Quezon City Jail with 3,700 detainees.

Meanwhile, at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), more than 5,000 inmates die annually due to overcrowding, disease and violence.

“These inhumane conditions in prisons imperil the life and health of detainees, particularly the sick, the elderly, as well as pregnant women and nursing mothers,” Palabay said.

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