Philippines eyes release of 5,000 inmates by 2023

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PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

THE PHILIPPINE government aims to release about 5,000 inmates by next year, as it tries to decongest the world’s most crowded jails, its Justice chief told the United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

“We are decentralizing our congested prison system,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla said in his UN statement, a copy of which was given to reporters on Wednesday evening.

“I am personally committed to continuing regular releases and aim to have 5,000 released by June next year,” said the Justice chief, who represented the Philippines at the 51st regular session of the UN council in Geneva, Switzerland.

The government released more than 350 inmates last month including the sick and elderly, many of whom had already served their sentences.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) plans to build next year a P2.5-billion “world-class” maximum security facility in the town of Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro, Mr. Remulla told a virtual forum on Aug. 24.

He earlier said the national penitentiary, which was designed to house 6,000 prisoners, had 17,000 inmates.

The DoJ also plans to relocate the national penitentiary’s minimum security facility to Nueva Ecija in the country’s north.

With 215,000 prisoners nationwide, Philippine jails and prisons are overfilled more than five times their official capacity, making them the most overcrowded prison system in the world, according to the World Prison Brief.

Many of the country’s jails fail to meet the minimum United Nations standards given inadequate food, poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The Philippine Human Rights Commission has repeatedly flagged the worsening congestion in the country’s jails, more recently spurred by the arrests of suspects in ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs that has killed thousands.

Mr. Remulla said DoJ plans to increase the prosecution success rate by streamlining processes between government prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.

He added that the measures are part of the agency’s goal to “change the culture” of the local justice system, which he said was prone to delays.

“We are reforming our system to deliver what our people deserve — real justice in real time,” the Justice chief said.

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said the United Nations Human Rights Council dealt victims of human rights violations in the Philippines a serious blow by failing to pass a resolution that would ensure continued scrutiny of the country’s rights situation.

The 2020 Human Rights Council resolution on the Philippines required the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor and report on the Philippine rights situation through 2022.

A September report by the high commissioner’s office highlighted prevailing rights violations and recommended continued monitoring and reporting to the council.

But council member states and donor countries that supported the 2020 resolution and the ensuing Philippine-UN Joint Program did not press for a 2022 resolution, Human Rights Watch said.

“The UN Human Rights Council’s failure to act on the Philippines is devastating for both the victims of human rights abuses and civil society groups that seek to uphold basic rights,” Lucy McKernan, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The end to council scrutiny of the Philippines reflects especially poorly on the European and other concerned governments, led by Iceland, that had banded together in 2020 to support a resolution and the UN Joint Program that sought real improvements on the ground,” she added.

The program was designed to institutionalize human rights reforms in the Philippines in the face of “catastrophic rights abuses” during the war on drugs started by then President Rodrigo R. Duterte in 2016.

Instead of creating a commission of inquiry to investigate the thousands of extrajudicial killings, the Human Rights Council in 2020 settled on providing the Philippines ‘technical cooperation’ and ‘capacity building’ that, while valuable, did not advance accountability for grave crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Since President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. took office on June 30, there has been no letup in drug war killings, the watchdog said. The Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines has reported 90 drug-related deaths under the new government.

During a meeting with UN Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif on Wednesday, Mr. Remulla said the Philippines was exerting efforts to improve its human rights situation.

He said the government would continue to engage constructively with the UN and international community, according to a Department of Foreign Affairs statement posted on its website. — John Victor D. Ordoñez