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Philippines: Supreme Court Holds First Virtual Session, Addresses Petition to Free Certain Prisoners due to COVID-19

(Apr. 30, 2020) On April 17, 2020, the Philippine Supreme Court held a virtual en banc session for the first time in its history in order to address an urgent petition requesting the release of elderly and sick inmates because of the risk they face in prison due to COVID-19, a government press release said. Courts throughout the country are closed under a presidential quarantine order, forcing the Supreme Court to meet online.

About 20 prisoners (some of them pregnant women) asked the High Court to approve this request for temporary release on humanitarian grounds because COVID-19 is spreading in some Philippine jails. Nine detainees and nine staff members at the Quezon City jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Court asked the defendants in this case—the Department of Justice, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP); the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG); and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor)—to submit comments by April 24. Meanwhile, these government agencies have been taking steps to address the situation:

  • The justice secretary indicated that, even before the coronavirus outbreak, the DOJ had instructed the Board of Pardons and Parole to expedite the release of, or grant executive clemency to, old and sick prisoners on humanitarian grounds.
  • The DILG has requested local government units to conduct mass testing in their jails to contain the spread of the coronavirus in prisons.
  • The BJMP and BuCor have set up isolation and quarantine facilities for inmates who are suspected of having contracted COVID-19.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson has cautioned that, if the government fails to address overcrowding in detention facilities nationwide, the Philippines may face “a real catastrophe.”