MANILA – The Office of the Solicitor General has opposed the plea of inmates seeking temporary release from jail amid the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of being members of communist groups and of taking advantage of the issue.
Some 22 inmates, mostly sick and elderly political prisoners from different jails, have urged the Supreme Court to order their release on humanitarian grounds, claiming that congestion in jails makes them vulnerable to the rapid spread of the highly contagious disease.
But the OSG, in its comment to the petition filed Friday, said jail congestion alone does not warrant the release of detainees and prisoners.
“While it is true that some of the detention and reformatory facilities in the country are highly congested, unfortunately, congestion in prison facilities is not among the grounds to release inmates. The issue of the inadequacy of the Philippine Prison System to meet the very high standard of international rules does not warrant the release of prisoners,” it said.
Instead, the OSG accused the petitioners, whom it claims are all “valuable members” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF), of exploiting the pandemic.
“Without a doubt, this petition is a ruse to remove them from the confines of judicially-approved penal custody. Contrary to their claim, there are no humanitarian considerations involved, but merely opportunistic legalism to distort established judicial processes,” the OSG argued.
“For more than 51 years, it has always been the scheme of CPP-NPA-NDF to exploit every opportunity in the guise of 'humanitarian considerations' to facilitate the release of its detained members, as it has done so every time the peace negotiations resumes. The CPP-NPA-NDF is bent on exploiting the COVID-19 crisis while the rest of the world finds a solution to defeat the virus,” it added.
NO GROUNDS FOR RELEASE
The OSG said the petitioners could not be released on recognizance because they are charged with offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua and could also not qualify for bail because they are involved in non-bailable offenses. Neither can they be released on the ground of equity which can only be invoked in the absence of a statute or rule of procedure.
Charges against the petitioners range from illegal possession of firearms and explosives to robbery, kidnapping and murder.
Release on recognizance entails entrusting inmates who can’t afford to post bail to the custody of qualified members of society. Politicians, church leaders and other society leaders have offered to guarantee the inmates’ attendance in future hearings.
The OSG also shot down petitioners’ reliance on the Supreme Court ruling allowing former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile to post bail on humanitarian grounds even while facing non-bailable plunder charges.
It said the SC ruled on the basis of Enrile’s fragile health coupled with his social and political standing and his immediate surrender, which indicated he is not a flight risk.
“Unlike Enrile, the petitioners in this case have shown that they are more likely to escape once released,” it claimed, citing the cases of NDF consultants who did not surrender despite the termination of the peace talks between government and the communist movement.
It added, the Enrile ruling was pro hac vice or only applicable to that one particular occasion.
Enrile, released in 2015, is facing trial for supposedly non-bailable plunder charges for his alleged role in the multibillion-peso Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam.
Releasing the petitioners, the OSG added, will only lead to “preferential treatment or undue favor,” as there is no substantial distinction between them and the other inmates, violating the equal protection clause.
In their petition, however, the 22 inmates asked the SC to consider the plight of other similarly-situated inmates.
OSG: GOVERNMENT DOING ENOUGH
Instead of focusing on whether inmates should be released, the OSG said the issue in the case should be whether or not the Philippine government is doing enough to provide medical care to petitioners.
“Stripped of non-essentials, the issue for the Court’s resolution can be narrowed down to whether the State can provide medical care to the petitioners while maintaining their confinement vis-à-vis the threat of COVID-19. The petitioners are strangely silent on this issue, which is the crux of the petition. Therein lies the deception,” it said.
The OSG enumerated numerous steps taken by various jails to address the COVID-19 pandemic – from lockdowns to disinfection efforts and putting up of isolation areas, arguing that inmates are “safer inside the confines of their detention cells than outside mingling with the rest of the population."
The New Bilibid Prison Hospital, it said, has a 500-bed capacity and a 1:60 bed-to-population ratio, better than outside hospitals. It also has a quarantine facility.
The DOJ said Friday that NBP’s “Site Harry,” which has 300 beds, was built according to stringent standards of the World Health Organization and the Department of Health.
The NBP reported on Friday the first COVID-19-related death in a male inmate earlier brought to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine for coronavirus symptoms.
Aside from the death at the NBP, the latest tally of COVID-19 cases in the country show 9 inmates and 9 staff at the Quezon City Jail have tested positive for the virus, while 21 inmates and 1 staff of the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong have also been infected.
The Cebu City Jail on Saturday reported 63 new cases from its male dormitory, bringing the total number of inmates and staff who contracted the virus to 210.
The OSG comment did not mention the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country's jail facilities in its 47-page comment, except to say that the Metro Manila District Jail 4 in Camp Bagong Diwa, where 13 petitioners are detained, is COVID-19 free, while the Taguig and Manila city jails housing the other 8 petitioners have put into place preventive and reactive measures.
It also did not say that one of the petitioners is serving her sentence at the CIW in Mandaluyong where there are confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The OSG added the circular from the SC Office of the Court Administrator is sufficient to decongest jails. The circular urged trial court judges to temporarily release those who have served the minimum number of years of the imposable penalty in the offense charged and to provisionally dismiss cases which have not prospered.
The wife of one of the petitioners rejected the OSG’s “red-tagging.”
“I was very surprised and angry to read my name in the Comment of the OSG and identified as a ‘known CPP-NPA-NDF leader’ in a paragraph relating to my husband, Vicente Ladlad, one of the petitioners. Such inclusion of my name is malicious and vicious and endangers my life and security. I am neither a leader nor member of the ‘CPP-NPA-NDF’ nor even a prominent fixture of any opposition movement,” said Fides Lim, a writer and an editor.
She is also the spokesperson of Kapatid (Filipino word for sibling), 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.
“I believe in taking up nationalist and human rights causes because I love my country but that doesn’t make me a communist,” she said.
She demanded that the OSG correct the error.
“The OSG comment is not privileged nor protected legal communication and, therefore, the malicious reference to sully my name is legally actionable against all those who signed the comment who stand to be culpable and accountable in a court of law and other fora,” she said.
Lim’s husband, Ladlad, is 71 and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“I want him back with me in the same way that I assert that equally vulnerable political prisoners and other prisoners should be released into the care of their worried families. I am sure that the OSG if his wife loves him enough would want his wife to do the same for him,” she said.
The Supreme Court has not announced when its next en banc session will be to discuss the SC petition for the release of the prisoners but it is expected to meet on or before April 29 to deliberate on the results of the 2019 Bar Exams.