Elderly prisoners, detainee with leprosy ask SC to release them amid pandemic

MANILA, Philippines – Invoking the doctrine used on former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, 22 political prisoners on Wednesday, April 8, asked the Supreme Court to release them on humanitarian grounds as the Philippines battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing the Supreme Court decision on Enrile that justified the grant of bail because the former senator was old and in a fragile state of health, the political prisoners said in their petition that they are also "elderly, sickly, and with medical conditions that require continuous monitoring and treatment."

The petitioners include prominent political prisoners like National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant Vic Ladlad, 69, who was arrested and jailed in 2018 for illegal possession of firearms; as well as Adelberto Silva, who was arrested in 2018 for the alleged mass grave of "purged" communist rebels in Inopacan, Leyte.

They are joined by 21-year-old Ge-ann Perez, who has leprosy and "has been unable to keep  up with her full treatment recommendations"; and 22-year-old Reina Mae Nasino, who is 5 months pregnant.

Only one of the 22 has been convicted – Lilia Bucatcat, who is serving her sentence at the Correctional Institute for Women – while the rest are in jail while on trial, like Enrile.

The petition pointed out that the High Court granted bail to Enrile after determining he was not a flight risk. The petitioners asked to be freed on bail as well.

"Petitioners assert that they are not flight risk because they are old, frail and sickly and, unlike Enrile, do not have the resources to evade trial by fleeing especially during the enhanced community quarantine being strictly imposed," said the petition prepared by the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL).

Former first lady Imelda Marcos was also able to use the Enrile doctrine to her advantage, as the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan allowed her to enjoy post-conviction bail because of old age.

Release committee

The petition also asked the Court to order the creation of a Prisoner Release Committee "to urgently study and implement the release of all other prisoners in various congested prisons throughout the country who are similarly vulnerable but cannot be included in this Petition due to the difficult circumstances." 

Former New Peoples' Army (NPA) chairman Rodolfo Salas, who was arrested and jailed for murder over the same Leyte case as Silva, was recently granted bail by the Supreme Court on a Writ of Habeas Corpus pleaded by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

FLAG had invoked Salas' exemption from prosecution using an earlier compromise agreement with the government, and the doctrine of political offense which generally says that crimes like murder, if committed in furtherance of rebellion, should be absorbed by the crime of rebellion.

In the Salas case, justices had asked during oral arguments why they were filing directly with the Supreme Court and not exhausting remedies like petitions for bail at the lower court.

In this petition, with 22 petitioners who vary in cases, their lawyers pleaded equity jurisdiction.

"In view of the silence or insufficiency of the law and the rules in regard to their urgent and extraordinary predicament, the Honorable Court must exercise its equity jurisdiction in the case at bar," the petitioners said.

The petitioners cited a 2003 civil case where the Supreme Court allowed a trial court order for the return of a downpayment in a property sale dispute, saying there was a gap in the law that "calls for the application of equity."

Citing that case, the petition said: "If the Honorable Court has applied equity to prevent unjust enrichment or to afford litigants full ventilation of their causes, it can certainly do the same for a far more persuasive reason: to extend the humanity of the law to petitioners amidst the raging pandemic."

"Petitioners pray for the Honorable Court‘s compassion and protection of their right to life and health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Needless to say, the continued incarceration of petitioners who are sick and elderly would be a virtual death sentence," the petition said. 

UN's stand

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, who supervises the Bureau of Jail and Management Penology (BJMP) facilties where the petitioners are detained, earlier rejected calls for releases in the time of the coronavirus. Año said prisoners were "safer inside."

The petition said the reason why they were resorting to the Supreme Court was because the BJMP would not be able to decide on its own on releasing prisoners if there was no order from the court.

The petition cited United Nations (UN) rights chief Michelle Bachelet who called for the release of low-risk offenders, the sick and the vulnerable to infection, saying it is "potentially catastrophic" if they are kept in congested jails as the coronavirus disease continues to spread.

As of posting, at least 6 countries, including the United Kingdom, have either already released prisoners on bail or have announced their intent to do so, because of the pandemic, 

There is a simultaneous call by Philippine rights groups to release low-level and non-violent offenders, old prisoners, and those with health conditions, whether or not they are political prisoners. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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