After 4 months and in 300 pages, SC says it couldn't act on prisoners’ plea for release during pandemic

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 12 2020 03:50 PM

Bureau of Corrections personnel frisk People Deprived of Liberty (PDL) inside the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City on March 4, 2020. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/file

MANILA — It took the Supreme Court 4 months and 301 pages to justify why it could not act on the plea of several prisoners and detainees vulnerable to the coronavirus, leaving the trial courts to decide on their fate instead.

In a decision dated July 28, all 15 SC magistrates voted unanimously to treat a petition filed in April by a group of political prisoners to release inmates at high risk of contracting COVID-19, as a petition for bail or recognizance, ordering trial courts to hold hearings to determine if they are entitled to temporary liberty.

The case presented “several complex issues…with far-reaching implications” and “the Supreme Court is not a trier of facts,” the high court said.

It took another month before the ruling was announced, and one more month before the petitioners’ lawyers, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, received a copy of the decision and separate opinions on Friday, prompting petitioners’ families to ask: “Bakit ngayon lang?” (Why just now?)

“It has been a long and difficult wait, and hurtful because while we expected swift and positive action, the Supreme Court, despite the prisoners’ life and death situation in overcrowded, disease-ridden jails, let go of five months and neglected the call of prisoners who hoped for at least a chance to survive,” said Fides Lim, spokesperson of KAPATID, a group of families and relatives of political prisoners, when the ruling was initially announced in September.

One of the petitioners gave birth in July while in detention but the baby died on Friday, more than a month after being separated from her detained mother.

The main decision itself, whose ponente was not indicated, was only 9 pages long, with the meat of the high court’s ruling contained in just 5 paragraphs.

The high court said that bail hearings are necessary, which can only be conducted by trial courts, not by the Supreme Court.

“In this case, petitioners have been charged with offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua. As such, they are not entitled to bail as a matter of right. Consequently, there is a need to conduct summary hearings for the purpose of weighing the strength of the prosecution’s evidence as to petitioner’s guilt,” it said.

But in an indication of disagreement over other issues in the case, 8 magistrates filed separate and concurring opinions, ranging from 9 pages for Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, to 92 pages for Associate Justice Edgardo Delos Santos, whom sources said was the justice in charge of the case.

A key issue was the petitioners’ reliance on the 2015 Supreme Court decision allowing former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile to post bail on humanitarian grounds. 

The Justices unanimously rejected the invocation of humanitarian reasons as a ground for their release, saying that equity only comes into play in the absence of law. The laws, they said, clearly provide for release only upon bail and recognizance.

But they clashed over whether the Enrile ruling, where the SC itself granted the former senator bail, may be applied in the case of the 22 political prisoners.

Peralta and Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier were open to applying the ruling, except that Peralta pointed out that unlike petitioners, Enrile underwent bail hearings where he supposedly showed evidence of his fragile health. The Chief Justice also considered Enrile’s social and political standing to show that he was not a flight risk.

Javier said the Enrile ruling created a two-step test when grant of bail is discretionary — that detainee will not be a flight risk nor a danger to the community, and that there are special, humanitarian and compelling circumstances. 

Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe clarified Enrile never went through bail hearings. She was joined by Associate Justices Marvic Leonen and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.

The 3 justices considered the Enrile case pro hac vice or applicable only to Enrile, with Leonen pointing out in his dissenting opinion in that ruling that it was a “special accommodation” for him, while Caguioa viewed it as a “stray” ruling which rests on shaky grounds.

But Javier rejected this, saying the majority in the Enrile ruling never said the ruling was only for Enrile. 

She also pointed out that doing so will deprive petitioners of benefiting from the ruling, warning that it could “institutionalize the forbidden thought that some people are better treated in and under the law than others upon dubious grounds.”

“I am not willing to travel this extent of unfairness. It was the Court that put the doctrine out there. If the Court is to pull it back, at least allow those who have already invoked it the benefit of the doubt no matter how marginalized and uninfluential they are,” she said.

Bernabe, Leonen and Caguioa however agreed detainees could invoke constitutional provisions and international standards in seeking better jail conditions, citing the Nelson Mandela Rules of the United Nations which provide for the minimum standards for treatment of prisoners.

They noted that these rules were codified in treaties ratified by the Philippines and were adopted by local authorities, the Bureau of Corrections, and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

The petitioners had argued the continued detention of highly vulnerable inmates, such as the elderly, pregnant women, and those who have pre-existing medical conditions that pose a high risk of contracting the coronavirus, is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited under the 1987 Constitution.

Bernabe and Caguioa advocated for adopting the “deliberate indifference standard” in US jurisprudence, which provides that when the State takes a person into custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes a duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being.

Delos Santos differed from this view, insisting that the Mandela rules are merely recommendatory and not binding, and the Philippine Constitution requires enactment of a law.

Javier for her part said that in order to blame authorities, active state interference is needed and a causal link between State action and harm allegedly suffered has to be established.

Leonen took issue with Delos Santos’ justification for the continued detention of political prisoners. 

Delos Santos had cited public safetly, claiming that the serious nature of the crimes charged in connection with their alleged membership in the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples’ Army-National Democratc Front makes their confinement a “legitimate and vital” national security concern, echoing the arguments raised by the Office of the Solicitor General who opposed the petition.

Leonen agreed with Javier that membership in the CPP-NPA-NDF is an allegation that is still being litigated. 

Some other justices however were more dismissive of the plight of the inmates.

Associate Justice Mario Lopez said petitioners should have filed petitions for bail with trial courts in the first place, while noting that worldwide initiatives to release prisoners amid the pandemic are “not absolute." He said it is not just a purely judicial act but one that could fall under the prerogatives of the President and Congress.

Associate Justice Rodil Zalameda hit the petitioners for their supposed “lack of candor” in not immediately disclosing the nature of their offenses, and for ignoring that either there are no COVID-19 cases in their facilities or that these cases have been moved to an isolation facility.

“The actual risk of petitioners contracting COVID-19 is more speculative than real,” he said.

Peralta, on the other hand, enumerated several measures introduced by the SC, including allowing electronic filing of applications for bail and criminal complaints, pilot-testing of videoconferencing hearings, and the grant of reduced bail and recognizance to indigent inmates.

These, he said, led to more than 33,000 detainees released by the Judiciary, and some 5,000 more released by the BJMP and Board of Pardons and Parole.

“As they hereby complain about languishing in isolation, they fail to see that in truth, the rest of the outside world is likewise socially isolating as a basic precautionary measure in response to a pandemic of this kind,” Peralta said in his separate opinion.

"They lament the lingering fear of a potential infection within their confinement on account of their respective physical vulnerabilities and hereby plead that they be indefinitely set free, without realizing it is that same exact fear which looms outside of prison walls.” 

Among the justices, Javier called for a separate protection for the baby of petitioner Reina Mae Nasino, who was 5 months pregnant at the time of the filing of the petition. 

“I believe that we have a role to play in protecting the baby from adverse consequences that are not of the baby’s own doing. After all, her mother is in this state of panic because the lower court has issued processes for her preventive detention…,” she said.

Javier did not say what kind of protection the baby was supposedly entitled to.

Baby River died due to pneumonia on Friday, 2 months after she was separated from her detained mother and on the same day NUPL received a copy of the decision.

The grieving mother is now asking the courts to allow her to see her baby for the last time.