Groups call for release of elderly, sickly political prisoners

MANILA. Gerardo Dela Peña (rights), flanked by his son Melchor, holds up his "Certificate of Discharge from Prison” at the holding center of the external relations section of the New Bilibid Prison, Muntinlupa, June 30, 2024.
MANILA. Gerardo Dela Peña (rights), flanked by his son Melchor, holds up his "Certificate of Discharge from Prison” at the holding center of the external relations section of the New Bilibid Prison, Muntinlupa, June 30, 2024. (Photo by KAPATID)

SEVERAL cause-oriented groups have come forward to demand the release of elderly and sickly political prisoners in the Philippines citing humanitarian reasons following the release of the country’s oldest political prisoner on June 30, 2024.

Gerardo Dela Peña, 85, said to be the “oldest political prisoner” in the country, was freed from the New Bilibid Prison at 9:30 p.m. on June 30 by virtue of executive clemency.

“He had been behind bars for more than 11 years for a trumped-up murder charge,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan.

The group said a total of 755 political prisoners are languishing in jails nationwide, where many of them are activists or ordinary citizens.

Of the 755 political prisoners, 90 of them are sickly while 102 are elderly, according to Palabay.

“Tatay Gerardo’s release was the result of a campaign by human rights organizations here and abroad. In recent months, various groups steadily stepped up the pressure to secure his release,” Palabay told Sunstar Philippines on July 1.

According to Palabay, Dela Peña should have been released forthwith, were it not for bureaucratic rigmarole.

“The struggle continues for about 90 other elderly political prisoners like Tatay Gerardo who should likewise be released on just and humanitarian grounds,” she said.

Progressive group Bayan president Renato Reyes also welcomed the “long overdue release” of dela Peña.

“It’s not a triumph of justice insomuch as it is proof of the gross injustice prevailing in the Philippines. That an elderly farmer would be convicted in that way is an injustice. President Marcos Jr. has made no pronouncement to free political prisoners. The political prisoners have increased under his regime,” Reyes said in a report from Catholic news site UCA News.

KAPATID, a support group of families and friends of political prisoners in the country, thanked Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla for facilitating Dela Peña’s release, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and non-government organizations, which contributed to their cause.

“His release is a milestone for human rights campaigns, but also serves as a stark reminder of the obstacles that impede the release of political prisoners,” said KAPATID spokesperson Fides Lim in a July 1 statement to the media.

“Every additional minute behind bars is a gross injustice for an innocent man,” Lim added.

In the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in the Philippines, the U.S. Department of State reiterated the country’s constitution stating that “no person shall be detained solely by reason of his political beliefs or aspirations.”

As of the July 2023 report, it quoted the country’s Bureau of Corrections’ data of 124 persons as “political prisoners.”

“But there was no clarity as to how this term was defined and applied,” the state department said.

The NGO Task Force Detainees of the Philippines defined political prisoners and detainees based on motivation and excluded persons guilty of or charged with crimes against persons or property, the report said.

“The Task Force noted that in most cases, authorities mixed political prisoners with the general inmate population, except in the New Bilibid Prison where most political prisoners were held in maximum security facilities,” the state department added.

The CHR earlier urged the Philippine government to “put primacy to efforts which ensure a humane correctional system in the country.”

“The Commission calls for the immediate release of Dela Peña. As a State signatory to the Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters, the Philippine government should put primacy to efforts which ensure a humane correctional system in the country. This discussion also includes the need to take into consideration the elderly and sickly Persons Deprived of Liberty who are imprisoned in congested spaces, where their conditions may worsen,” CHR said.

“We take this opportunity to call for the release of persons deprived of liberty who have demonstrated good behavior and have met the legal standards for executive clemency as this would greatly help towards the government’s ongoing jail decongestion efforts,” added in a statement in May 2024. (SunStar Philippines)

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