MANILA – Many things run through Erlinda Perez’s mind these days -- her sick daughter detained in a jail in Taguig, her family back in Cebu while she is stuck in Laguna unable to leave her relative’s house, caught in the Luzon-wide lockdown.
But she only has one wish.
“Usa ra akong pangandoy nga unta mauban siya, og tugutan man nga makagawas ang mga political prisoners,” she told ABS-CBN News by phone Thursday night, speaking in her native Bisaya.
(I only have one wish – that my daughter be included among those who will be released should they decide to release political prisoners.)
Her daughter, Ge-ann Perez, is among 22 inmates who filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking the release of political prisoners and the sick and the elderly -- those who are most likely to acquire COVID-19 while in jail.
Citing compassion and humanitarian grounds, the inmates said the cramped and unsanitary conditions in jails are breeding grounds for the spread of the virus. The continued detention of those highly vulnerable to the disease, they said, is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment which the Constitution prohibits.
Supreme Court magistrates are set to meet Friday morning to discuss the petition.
LIVING WITH LEPROSY
In a list of mostly senior citizens, Ge-ann’s name stands out among the petitioners as she is only 21 years old. But she is living with leprosy, an infectious disease that causes skin sores and nerve damage in the arms, legs and skin areas.
The petition said she requires a continuous cycle of medical treatment and ventilation which is not possible while in detention.
Erlinda said her daughter was first diagnosed with the disease in April 2018 when she was still living in Cebu.
Ge-ann started taking medication provided by the local city health office and when she moved to work in Laguna in October that year, Erlinda would dutifully send her medicines every month.
That changed when Ge-ann was arrested on March 24, 2019 together with National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant and NDFP-Negros spokesperson Frank Fernandez and his wife Cleofe Lagtapon in Laguna.
They were accused of illegal possession of firearms and explosives after cops and soldiers allegedly recovered 3 pistols, 3 magazines, 15 pieces of live ammunition and 3 hand grenades from a house the elderly couple was renting.
Authorities accused Ge-ann of being a member of the regional communications staff of the Komite Rehiyon-Negros Cebu Bohol Siquijor but Erlinda rejects the allegation, saying her daughter worked as caregiver for the elderly couple.
“Dili man sir. Kanang ing-ana nga naa ka’y sakit, mokuan ka pa anang ingon ana nga kuan. Kung makuan ka sa NPA (New People’s Army), naa man ka sa bukid guro. Akong bata, naa ra man diha sa amoa,” she said.
(No, sir. If you’re sick, would you even consider joining those activities? If you’re with the New People’s Army, you should probably be in the mountains. My daughter had been staying in our house.)
Erlinda also doubts the official account that Fernandez and Lagtapon, who were 71 and 66 at the time of their arrest, were in possession of firearms and explosives.
“Ang itsura ato nga pirti man gani tong tiguwanga, mura nama’g mapalid kung ituklod. Mokupot pa’g armas? Imposible gyud na kaayo nga mokupot sila’g armas…,” she argued.
(The couple looked really old. It’s almost as if they’ll easily be blown away if you push them. You expect them to hold a gun? That’s impossible!)
Both Fernandez and Lagtapon are among the 22 petitioners before the Supreme Court.
Rights group Karapatan, who has been calling for the release of political prisoners, said Fernandez suffers from chronic artery disease, chronic stable angina, hypertension stage 2- uncontrolled, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and hyponatremia, among others. Lagtapon also suffers from COPD, aside from frail health due to old age.
MOUNTING CALLS FOR RELEASE OF PRISONERS
Various groups have joined the mounting call for the release of low-risk prisoners to stop a possible spread in crowded jails, following examples in other countries.
These groups include the Free Legal Assistance Group, the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDA) and Kapatid (Filipino word for brother/sister), an organization of families and friends of political prisoners in the Philippines which has lobbied for the release and protection of their rights and welfare. The Communist Party of the Philippines also supported the call.
Makabayan lawmakers and business sector-backed Judicial Reform Initiative sent letters to the Supreme Court in support of the move.
The DOJ is also studying pleas to release inmates.
The House of Representatives Committee on Justice on April 6, recommended to the Peace and Order Cluster of the Defeat COVID-19 Committee the temporary release of prisoners to decongest jails while the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) also backed the plea as long as there is a court order.
Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, one of the lawyers’ groups representing the inmates, said authorities must move fast.
“It will be catastrophic if they twiddle and dilly-dally any longer. The process of releases even on purely humanitarian grounds should not be ponderous given the extreme urgency and exigency of the situation. Time is of the essence,” he said in a statement.
HAPPY AND WORRIED
Erlinda said she is happy that there are groups calling on the government to release qualified prisoners.
“Nalipay ko nga naa’y mga grupo nga motabang sa akong bata nga maapil siya makagawas.
Nalipay ko nga naguol kay…naguol nga wala ko kahibalo sa iyang kahimtang ngadto karon,” she said.
(I’m happy that there are groups who are helping my daughter to be set free. I’m happy but I am also worried because I don’t know her condition right now.)
The last time she saw her daughter was during her last hearing on March 2, which coincided with her husband’s birthday. She and her husband pooled together whatever meager resources they had to be by their daughter’s side on that day.
“Lisod gyud kayo ang kahimtang nga layo kaayo ba. Maayo unta kung naa pod diri dool mi nagpuyo kay makaya-kaya ra ang plete padung sa iyang nahimutangan karon,” Erlinda shared.
(It’s really difficult if you’re far away. It would have been manageable if she were detained nearby, we could afford the fare to visit her.)
Erlinda would have attended the next scheduled hearing on March 16 but the ensuing Metro Manila community quarantine and later, the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, meant the hearings were cancelled and the jail visits suspended.
Ge-ann had requested that she buy her meals that don’t spoil quickly, fruits, alcohol, soap and shampoo.
Living in Laguna while her daughter is in Taguig, Erlinda hasn’t been able to comply with her daughter’s request.
What worries Erlinda more is that Ge-ann had not been able to go back to the Philippine General Hospital for a follow-up check-up. She said her daughter needed prescription to counter the side-effects of the medicines she’s taking.
Her fear is that her daughter would end up the same way when she saw her at a hospital after she was arrested in March 2019.
“Didto nakit-an nako ako anak nga lain kayo. Mura’ag ako lang gi-agwanta nga dili gyud makahilak. Ako siyang gigakos kay lisod, lain gyud kaayo iyang kahimtang. Nanlagom iyang nawong, mailhan nimo nga…kana gud nga sakit nga leprosy, kung stressed ka, mokuan man gud nang iyang reaksyon sa lawas, sa iyang nawong,” she said, mentioning black and red sores all over her face and body.
(She looked very different. I almost could not help crying. I hugged her. Her condition was very difficult. Her face had turned dark. If you have leprosy, stress triggers reactions all over the body.)
She was much better when she visited her in December last year, Erlinda said.
But when told it might take a long time before her next visit:
“Nahilom unya nihilak siya kay gusto na daw siya mopauli lagi, unya unsaon man nga, naghinilakay na lang pod ming duha kay ngano, unsaon man nga dili man gyud mahimo nga mopauli siya...”
(She turned quiet. She started crying, saying she wanted to go home. But what can we do? We ended up crying together. What can we do? She really can’t go home even if she wanted to.)
“Mao na akong hangyo sa Korte Suprema nga tagaan unta’g pagtagad ang mga masakiton, tanan nga mga political prisoners, apil na akong bata ana…Mao ra na sir akong pangandoy nga maapil unta akong bata para makapauli na mi’g Cebu,” Erlinda said.
(That’s why I ask the Supreme Court to consider the plight of the sick and all the political prisoners, including my child. That’s my only wish sir, that my daughter might be included among those who will be released so we can go home to Cebu.)