Supreme Court gives gov't 5 days to answer petition for prisoner release

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Supreme Court has given the government a non-extendible 5-day period to submit its comment on the petition to release low-risk and vulnerable prisoners amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sources confirmed to Rappler that the en banc decided in its session on Friday, April 17, to order the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) to submit an answer – a usual procedure for cases in the High Court. 

Supreme Court Spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka confirmed that the comment is due on April 24.

Hosaka also said that the Supreme Court "ordered respondents to take the necessary interim preventive measures required by this national emergency (COVID 19) and provide a verified report to the Court within the same period."

The lawyers of the petitioners, citing recent developments, stressed the urgency of acting favorably on the petition.

"Well, we would have wanted a speedier and accelerated process especially so that the contagion is starting already in some jails. The time bomb is ticking faster and louder," said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), which represented the petitioners alongside the Public Interest Law Center (PILC).

As the en banc was meeting Friday morning, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) announced that 9 Quezon City (QC) Jail inmates and 9 QC jail personnel have tested positive for coronavirus.

The inmates wereisolated, while the personnel were on home quarantine.

The city jail was built for 800, but as of 2016, it housed more than 3,800 inmates, making it difficult, if not impossible, to implement physical distancing measures that can prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19.

"The expediency of the circumstances and imminence of the health threat call for a more decisive, less ponderous approach even as we understand prudent and practical considerations. But many countries have proven it could and should be done with dispatch," said Olalia.

Safer inside?

The BJMP, in an earlier letter to the House justice committee, had already supported calls for the release of low-risk and vulnerable prisoners, but that it needs a court order to actually implement releases.

"The BJMP does not have any opposition to this noble intention. We support the idea that jail decongestion at this point in time is an immediate and effective response to combat the COVID-19 pandemic," Jail Director Allan Iral said in a letter on April 9.

This was a change of heart from the earlier outright rejection of Interior Secretary Eduardo Año who said prisoners were "safer inside." The BJMP is under the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

"The claim that it is safer inside jails is detached from reality and humanity.  We just have to wait and pray it is not too late. And keep on knocking, if not banging on doors," said Olalia.

As for the sentenced convicts under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he needed "at least one more week" to decide, and that whatever decision would be a purely executive move that does not require permission from the courts.

The en banc also tackled on Friday the petition for mandamus to disclose President Rodrigo Duterte's state of health, but sources said it would be called again, meaning, there was no action. – 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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