Philippines' top court moves to decongest jails across the country over COVID-19 fears

COVID-19 infections has prompted the Philippine Supreme Court to expedite the release of thousands of Philippine inmates. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 02 May 2020

Philippines' top court moves to decongest jails across the country over COVID-19 fears

  • Reports say hundreds of inmates contracting coronavirus 
  • 9,731 inmates had been released based on the revised measures

MANILA: The Philippines’ top court has revised procedures to release inmates at the earliest opportunity in order to decongest jails and limit the spread of COVID-19, a Supreme Court official said Saturday.

Marvic Leonen, an associate justice at the court, said that 9,731 inmates had been released based on the revised measures between March 15 and April 29.

“Of the 9,731, 2,801 are from the National Capital Region (Metro Manila); 4,657 from Luzon; 1,072 from the Visayas and 1,920 from Mindanao ... and we continue as much as we can to decongest the jails,” Leonen said in a virtual news briefing.

It follows calls from human rights groups and prison reform advocates to release low-level offenders and sick and elderly prisoners after the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology said last week that at least 195 prisoners had contracted the disease, while the Bureau of Corrections had recorded 50 cases.

The Philippines has the most congested penal system in the world, with a total jail population of more than 215,000 as of November 2019 occupying space intended for a maximum capacity of 40,000, based on data from World Prison Brief.

Additionally, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that the 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent capacity in March 2020. 

Leonen said the release of more inmates under the initiative depended on the outcome of court procedures.

“I can only hope that those that deserve to be released will be released, and those that deserve to be detained will be detained.”

He added that they were monitoring the revised mechanisms to address the urgent needs of inmates, despite the courts being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the new measures adopted is the use of video-conferencing to hear and resolve pressing matters filed by inmates in areas that remain under lockdown, or in detention facilities with reported cases of infections.

The Supreme Court has also allowed the online filing of cases and posting of bail requests, in addition to reducing the bail amount and authorizing the release of certain prisoners. 

“I have heard that the Department of Justice is planning to make enforceable some abbreviated rules in terms of pardons and parole,” Leonen said, adding that trimming the jail population was not just the responsibility of the court but of local governments, the executive as well as the legislature.

While the Supreme Court understood the gravity of the humanitarian crisis facing the country, it needed to hear all parties to be able to come out with a solution.

“It may not be as fast as people think. We are not the executive, certainly we are not the legislature, but we are careful about setting a precedent during these times.”

Philippines cracks down on clandestine COVID-19 clinics

Updated 29 May 2020

Philippines cracks down on clandestine COVID-19 clinics

  • Intelligence, immigration officials investigating illegal facilities that catered mostly to foreigners

MANILA: The Philippines has intensified its crackdown on uncertified medical facilities offering treatment to people, particularly foreigners, with COVID-19 symptoms.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Thursday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Bureau of Immigration (BI) to help the Philippine National Police (PNP) track down foreign nationals behind the illegal clinics.
“It seems that clandestine medical clinics catering mostly to foreign nationals have sprouted and have been operating without proper authority,” Guevarra told reporters.
He said the facilities could have compromised the health of those who had undergone treatment.
“I’ll therefore ask the NBI and the BI to help the police in locating other similar underground clinics and the people running them, and if warranted, to file the appropriate charges against them,” he added.
Guevarra issued the order following a raid on Tuesday on an illegal clinic catering to Chinese patients in Makati City. Arrested in the operation were Chinese nationals Dr. David Lai, 49, and Liao Bruce, 41.
The clinic was reportedly operating without a permit, while the arrested did not have a license to practice medicine in the country.
Seized from the site were swab sticks, vials, syringes and boxes of medicine with Chinese labels — believed to be unregistered with the Food and Drug Administration.
Last week, law enforcers also swooped on a makeshift hospital for Chinese patients in the Fontana Leisure Park in Clark, Pampanga province.
The raid came after police received information that a COVID-19 patient was “undergoing medical attention” in a Fontana villa.
Arrested during the raid were Chinese nationals Liu Wei, who reportedly supervised the facility, and Hu Shiling, allegedly a pharmacist. Both were released on the same day without charge.
Immigration officials on Thursday said the duo had been placed on their watch list to prevent them from leaving the country while an investigation is underway.
BI Commissioner Jaime Morente said intelligence operatives will trace four of the patients, and are looking into the case of the Chinese nationals arrested in Makati.
“I’ve instructed our intelligence division to investigate if these alleged Chinese doctors are legally staying in the country,” he said.
“Should we find they violated our immigration laws, they’ll be charged with deportation cases before our law and investigation division,” he added.
“Even if no criminal charges were filed against them, they can be charged for immigration law violations if we can establish that they violated the conditions of their stay in the country.”
If criminal charges are filed, however, the BI will only deport them after their cases have been resolved or they have served their sentences, if convicted.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros called for the “immediate deportation and blacklisting” of the Chinese nationals because of their “blatant disregard of our laws.”
She added that while the Philippines is working hard to protect its people from the virus, “these criminals freely roam and pose a danger to public health.”