Locked up for ideology, Philippines’ political prisoners at risk of COVID-19

By Sara Gómez Armas

Manila, Apr 24 (efe-epa).- Vicente Ladlad, a 71-year-old with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is just one of the 609 prisoners of conscience inside the overcrowded Philippine prisons who are facing heightened risks of contracting COVID-19 as they are kept behind bars for their political ideology and leftist activism.

Ladlad has been in a Manila prison awaiting trial since November 2018, when he was arrested on charges of illegal possession of weapons and explosives, which his wife Fides Lim, the leader of Kapatid, a support group formed by relatives and friends of political prisoners, says were “planted by the police as an excuse to detain him.”

Her husband is a member of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, a coalition of left-wing parties, trade unions and mass organizations, that has been negotiating a peace process with the government of President Rodrigo Duterte on behalf of the banned Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.

“My husband was just a consultant on the peace panel with the communists but the political persecution against him an others consultants started in the second half of 2018, after President (Rodrigo) Duterte suspended the peace process,” Lim told EFE, also expressing concerns for her husband’s health.

He was arrested on the night of Nov. 8, 2018 while hiding at the house of his friends Alberto and Virginia Villamor after learning there was an arrest warrant issued against him.

“The police broke into the house in the middle of the night and they threatened them with guns and forced them to lie on the floor while they were putting the arms inside,” said Lim, who alleged that no fingerprints of the trio – who have been kept in Manila’s Camp Bagong Diwa prison pending trial ever since – were found on the weapons.

According to Karapatan, a national network of human rights groups, the Philippines has 609 political prisoners, out of which 362 have been arrested during Duterte’s term.

“The majority of them are social activists. The majority were accused of charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, which the political prisoners allege were planted when they were arrested,” Karapatan Secretary General Christina Palabay told EFE, alleging a “pattern” of persecution against political activists under the current regime.

These prisoners include 100 women, 47 senior citizens and 63 people suffering from various ailments.

Lim has been unable to meet or talk to her husband since the beginning of March, when visits were suspended to prevent the COVID-19 epidemic from entering prisons.

Until recently the government had declared the jails safe from the coronavirus, but last week nine prisoners and as many employees tested positive in Manila’s Quezon prison, which is built to house 800 inmates but is currently crammed with more than 3,800, forced to sleep in shifts.

Another 19 positive cases have surfaced in the Mandaluyong women’s prison in the capital, while a 41-year-old died on Monday inside a prison in Cebu, the second biggest city in the country.

According to official data, Philippine prisons hold 500 percent more inmates than their capacity, which makes social distancing impossible.

National and international rights groups have urged authorities to release people jailed for minor crimes, as well as senior citizens and sick prisoners.

“The outbreaks follow multiple earlier warnings that an eruption of COVID-19 in the country’s jails or prisons could be disastrous, due to dangerously high overcrowding and inadequate access to basic services such as food, water, hygiene and healthcare,” Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

Fides Lim is part of a group of 22 family members of political prisoners who on Apr. 8 filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking pardons for political prisoners and the release of inmates most vulnerable to catching COVID-19

The top court heard the petition last Friday and gave the government five days to file a response, while the Office of the Court Administrator on Monday instructed judges to expedite trials and issue bail to those with pending cases.

More than 75 percent of the Philippines’ 215,000 prisoners are in preventive detention awaiting trial, a situation which can stretch out for many years in a slow and inefficient justice system.

Sharon Cabusao is another signatory on the appeal to release political prisoners, including her husband Adelberto Silva, 73, a trade union activist who was also a consultant in the peace process with leftist rebels. Silva suffers from serious conditions such as hypertension and heart problems.

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