MANILA - The failure of a Supreme Court justice to travel back to Manila from the Visayas is causing the delay in resolving an urgent petition for the release of sick, elderly and pregnant detainees amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta said Thursday.
"Unfortunately, the member in charge cannot come now to Manila. There's no flight yet from his place in Visayas coming to Manila," Peralta said in an online press conference.
Twenty-two political prisoners filed a petition with the high court in April asking for the release of detainees considered as vulnerable to the infectious disease, to give them "a fair chance at surviving the devastating impact of the COVID-19 outbreak."
The petitioners said the disease is more likely to spread in overcrowded jails with lack of access to hygiene measures and medical care.
The petition was filed while the enhanced community quarantine was in place. Two months later and under the more relaxed general community quarantine in most areas, the SC has yet to act on the petition.
Peralta explained the difficulty in deliberating on a petition when the justice in charge for it is not physically present.
"What we do in the Supreme Court is that we cannot tackle something if it's not deliberated upon and the one who will present to the en banc is the member in charge," he said.
"Kung boto lang yan and deliberations have already been terminated, he will just leave his vote. Pwede yun eh. But you cannot vote on something when there's no deliberation, and the one who will lead the deliberation is the ponente. 'Yun ang problema namin," Peralta said.
He did not name the justice in-charge.
"Jokingly, I told him, lumangoy ka na lang (just swim)," Peralta said.
The top magistrate also said technical problems prevented the justice from attending en banc sessions through videoconferencing while in the province.
But he said they will have to resort to videoconferencing on Tuesday if the justice still fails to return to Manila then.
"So I hope that he can come this Tuesday. And I can assure you that once he's here, I believe that case will finally be now resolved."
Families and relatives of the political prisoners who formed a group called Kapatid said they hope the SC will act on the petition on Tuesday.
“We in Kapatid take hope from Chief Justice Peralta's statement that a decision on our pending petition appealing for the humanitarian release of the elderly, the sick and pregnant prisoners will be forthcoming by Tuesday next week, June 16," Fides Lim, Kapatid spokesperson, said.
Lim said the prisoners are getting sick and one of the petitioners, Reina Mae Nasino, is due to give birth in July.
Nasino, 23, who is detained at the Manila City Jail Female Dorm, is already on her 8th month of pregnancy, Lim said.
Kapatid insisted Nasino was arrested on trumped-up charges.
"Together with her mother and family, we are very worried about her condition and we hope the SC will allow her release, even on temporary basis on bail," Lim said.
"We hope that the SC will heed our appeal," she added.
Latest figures from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology showed there are 745 detainees and 125 personnel who tested positive for the coronavirus, as of June 11, of whom 6 died.
The Bureau of Corrections, meanwhile, reported 222 prisoners and 48 employees have contracted the coronavirus that is causing COVID-19, as of June 2. Ten of them succumbed to the disease.