By Chito Chavez
Militant group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) on Monday strongly called for the immediate release of the most vulnerable persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) and political prisoners after a Quezon City Jail inmate died possibly of the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19).
The group claimed that 15 detainees are also in isolation while an employee of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) tested positive for the disease.
KMU said several groups have mounted the call for the release of prisoners to decongest jails and prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in cramped detention facilities.
The KMU also urged President Duterte to stop the mass arrests of people caught violating curfews and quarantine regulations, such as in the case of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City, as well as the detention of nine vegetable vendors in Old Capitol Site in the same city.
The San Roque 21 is set to be released on bail on Monday, April 6.
“Violators could be simply apprehended, but the mass arrests and inhumane treatment should stop. Instead of decongesting jails, mass arrests further add up to the number of overcrowded jails,” said KMU vice chairperson Lito Ustarez.
Thousands of detainees in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and the United States have already been released, with 25,000 freed in Indonesia alone.
“The pandemic doesn’t spare victims across age, gender, and social class, more so persons deprived of liberty who are crammed inside jails. With the dire situation in Philippine prisons, and with social distancing being impossible in such setting, it is an immeasurable crisis just waiting to blow up,” said Ustarez.
The United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued an urgent recommendation to governments to free political prisoners who were “detained without sufficient legal basis… and those detained for critical dissenting views.”
“It is a concrete measure that must be taken to significantly decongest overcrowded cells, hence, avoiding massive infection should the virus touch base. Prisoners who are part of the most vulnerable population — elderly, pregnant, and sick with chronic illnesses and debilitating conditions — should be prioritized for release. They are the most critical cases that should be protected from the disease,” said the labor leader.
KMU said that Saudi Arabia has released hundreds and is set to release thousands more inmates while Egypt had set free political prisoners in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is high time for the Philippines to follow suit,” Ustarez added.
Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Ano earlier declared that “jails are 100 percent safe” as BJMP implemented lockdowns in all jail facilities.
“Ano’s statement cannot be an assurance as prisons in the country have poor sanitation, lack medical facilities, and have alarming death rates even before this pandemic arrived. Without the mass testing of the inmates, there can be no certainty,” Ustarez argued.
He warned that a “lack of immediate preventive response poses a risk of spreading the contagious virus inside prisons like wildfire, especially in city jails where overcapacity has long been a problem.”