By Chito Chavez
Claiming that prisoners have been dying from the novel coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19), human rights group Karapatan on May 5, Tuesday, called for the release of political prisoners still languishing in jails in the midst of the health crisis.
As the Supreme Court deliberates on the petition for the humanitarian release of prisoners today, the group expressed extreme alarm “over the possible underreporting of deaths of inmates.”
With these fears, Karapatan has reiterated its urgent demand to decongest jails by granting temporary liberty for vulnerable prisoners, including political prisoners, but especially the sick and elderly, with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s detention facilities.
“Even the death of one detainee is already alarming enough, especially when high congestion rates, the lack of adequate medical and sanitation facilities, and the subhuman conditions in our prisons mean that the disease can easily spread, infect, and kill more prisoners, especially the most vulnerable,” Karapatan Deputy Secretary General Roneo Clamor said.
“Jails are already reporting outbreaks of the disease and the government needs to act to curb its transmission. The Supreme Court must heed their urgent appeals before it’s too late,” he added.
As of March 28, Karapatan said there are 609 political prisoners in the country. Among these are 100 women, 47 elderly political prisoners, and 63 others who suffer from serious ailments.
Karapatan said that one inmate from the New Bilibid Prison had died from COVID-19, while the disease had already claimed the lives of two prisoners from the Correctional Institute for Women.
The group added that one inmate from the Cebu City Jail and another from the Quezon City Jail have also died because of the disease.
Clamor noted, however, that “the actual numbers of detainees who have tested positive to COVID-19 and the disease’s death toll in prisons might be severely underreported.”
In particular, Clamor raised concerns over the recent death of 61-year-old peasant rights activist and political prisoner Adelaida “Nanay Ede” Macusang, “who had been detained at the Compostela Valley Provincial Rehabilitation Center over a trumped-up charge of illegal possession of explosives’’.
Macusang was arrested on March 24, 2018.
“Yesterday, May 4, 2020, Nanay Ede was rushed to a hospital in Tagum City, Davao del Norte after complaining of severe stomach pain and nausea but was declared dead on arrival. Initial findings of physicians stated that she succumbed to kidney failure and cardiac arrest. Prior to her arrest, Nanay Ede had already been diagnosed with severe hypertension and cardiomegaly. She died without being tested for COVID-19,’’ Clamor said.
“There are recent reports of prisoners dying but there is almost no way of finding out if their deaths are COVID-19-related since many of them have died without ever being tested. Thousands of prisoners in detention facilities all over the country remain untested—and this should be a cause for alarm, especially since people can get infected with COVID-19 without showing symptoms,” he added.
Clamor said the group had warned that the country’s jails are not safe from the pandemic.
“The government should take the political prisoners’ urgent calls seriously before the pandemic turns into a full-blown disaster in our overcrowded prisons and lead to the loss of hundreds of lives. The government must seek all efforts to protect the lives and health of prisoners by heeding our demand for the temporary humanitarian release of vulnerable detainees. We cannot afford to lose more lives,” Clamor ended.