By Chito Chavez
Human rights group Karapatan has pushed for the prompt mass testing for novel coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) and insisted that all political prisoners and alleged violators of lockdown rules must be freed.
Karapatan stressed that a “test, test, test” for COVID-19 policy is right and just rather than the “arrest, arrest, arrest” approach being carried out by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at their checkpoints and in many areas they patrol.
In pushing for the testing, Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said one sure way of preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is to release 602 political prisoners and decongest detention facilities by releasing inmates from overcrowded prisons.
“Continuing the punitive policy of arresting alleged quarantine violators combined with the lack of the needed public health measures to combat the pandemic is ‘a deadly disaster in the making’ for the country’s highly congested prisons where measures like physical distancing and isolation are virtually impossible,” Palabay said.
“We are running out of time. One inmate from the Quezon City Jail had already died because of suspected COVID-19 infection. With every passing day that the government refuses to conduct mass testing while arresting thousands for violating quarantine measures, they are risking the lives of thousands of detainees. We urgently reiterate our demand that they release political prisoners on just and humanitarian grounds, especially the sick, the elderly, nursing mothers, and pregnant women,” Palabay reiterated.
Karapatan expressed support for the families of political prisoners led by Kapatid who filed a petition before the Supreme Court (SC) yesterday seeking to grant temporary liberty on humanitarian grounds to prisoners belonging to vulnerable or at-risk groups.
Palabay noted that the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology reported that 15 inmates at the Quezon City Jail (QCJ) have been isolated after coming into contact with an inmate who died of suspected COVID-19 infection last March 25.
The QCJ houses almost 3,700 detainees and is the third most populated jail in the country.
Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary Eduardo Año earlier claimed that Philippine jails are 100 percent COVID-19-free.
With this declaration, Karapatan said that Año had virtually rejected calls of human rights groups for the release of political detainees as well as first-time and low risk offenders.
Palabay argued this is incorrect and said “the mere fact that prisoners cannot practice physical distancing should already be a red flag. Combined with the overall inadequacy of medical services, clean water, and sanitation, and the lack of testing protocols for prisoners, detention facilities are the ultimate petri-dish for deadly disease outbreaks like COVID-19. The government must act now and heed our urgent appeal, or the consequences will be disastrous for prisoners, especially the most vulnerable.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has earlier called on governments for the release of political prisoners and that imprisonment should be a matter of last resort amid this public health crisis.
Karapatan’s urgent appeal has been supported by various local and international human rights organizations such as the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) along with demands for the Philippine government to end the detention and ill-treatment of quarantine violators. (See OMCT statement through this link: https://www.omct.org/human-rights-defenders/statements/philippines/2020/04/d25775/)
“Arrests of quarantine violators have led to abuses of authority through inhumane, cruel, and degrading punishment such as being locked up in dog cages or being hit with sticks. Detaining quarantine violators in cramped cells in police precincts also defeats the whole purpose of physical distancing — and it has targeted the poor, especially the informal sector and transport workers who are going out of their homes out of desperation to feed their families and save their livelihood with the lack of sufficient economic assistance and relief from the government,” Palabay explained.
As of April 1, Karapatan said that the data from the Philippine National Police showed that a total of 20,389 individuals have been arrested for supposedly violating the measures imposed as part of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Yesterday, Karapatan claimed the PNP revised the figure and said 80,000 people have been accosted and detained for violating lockdown rules, meaning the number quadrupled in just one week.
The 21 residents of the urban poor community of Sitio San Roque in Barangay Pag-asa, Quezon City who were arrested last April 1 for demanding food aid from the local government posted bail on Monday, April 6, and were released.
Nineteen vegetable vendors arrested along Elliptical Road on April 4 for “illegal street vending” or trying to earn some money were also released on Tuesday, April 7.
“We reiterate that mass arrests do not address mass hunger — they only worsen them. Without mass testing, quarantine measures become tantamount to mass incarceration, especially for the poor who are left with no choice but to have nothing to eat on their tables or have themselves arrested for setting foot outside their homes. Karapatan asserts its appeal for the release of political prisoners on just and humanitarian grounds to combat the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to end the detention of alleged quarantine violators. Instead of militarist and punitive policies, the government should address the people’s legitimate demands for public health and socioeconomic measures,” Palabay concluded.