Philippines eyes ‘world-class’ top-security prison

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

THE PHILIPPINE Department of Justice (DoJ) on Wednesday said it is considering building a modern maximum-security prison for heinous crime convicts in a country known for having the world’s most crowded jails.

At a Senate hearing streamed live on Facebook, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla proposed to transfer the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City to Nueva Ecija province in the country’s north.

“If it’s a maximum-security prison, then let’s make it a world-class maximum-security prison in the sense that the security features in that prison should be modern,” Senator Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III said.

As of 2017, the Philippines had 933 jails — seven national prisons and 926 city, district, municipal and provincial jails that are not enough to contain inmates, three-quarters of whom are at the pretrial stage, the World Prison Brief said on its website.

The local Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly flagged the worsening congestion in the country’s jails, more recently because of the high and sudden influx of arrested suspects in connection with ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs that has killed thousands.

Many jails in the Philippines fail to meet the minimum United Nations standards given inadequate food, poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions.

Mr. Remulla earlier said the national penitentiary, which was designed to house 6,000 prisoners, had 17,000 inmates. He also said they plan to streamline the digitalization of jail records to address congestion.

Senator Robinhood C. Padilla told the same hearing jail officials should uphold the human rights even in prisons.

“Our inmates have human rights,” said the senator, who was convicted of illegal gun possession in 1994 and served four years in prison before his conditional pardon in 1998. “During my time in prison, 80% of inmates were poor people who were not given the chance to have legal representation.”

In 2016, former President Rodrigo R. Duterte gave him absolute pardon, allowing him to run for public office.

The former action star earlier filed a bill that seeks to establish penal farms across the regions to help decongest jails and make it more convenient for family members to visit inmates.

Meanwhile, Mr. Remulla said the Justice department would submit a status report on the drug cases against former Senator Leila M. de Lima, who has been in jail since February 2017. Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara requested the update.

The defense is presenting evidence in one of her cases, and in another, the prosecution is about to finish presenting evidence, he told senators.

Mr. Angara noted that foreign diplomats have been asking him about the pending cases against Ms. De Lima, who claims to have been politically persecuted after she led a probe of Mr. Duterte’s drug war in Davao City when he was still its mayor.

“What I do want to do is give an assurance [to the diplomats] that these cases are moving and the wheels of justice are grinding in whatever direction they may lead,” he said.

The Ombudsman has dismissed bribery charges against Ms. De Lima and her former aide as it found no probable cause to indict them.

Ombudsman investigators had charged the ex-senator and her aide with conspiracy to extort money from self-confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa.

Mr. Espinosa earlier testified that Ms. De Lima through her aide had pocketed P8 million in bribe money that she allegedly used to fund her 2016 senatorial campaign.

At least four witnesses have taken back their allegations about her involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Mr. Remulla earlier said it would be up to the courts to decide on the former lawmaker’s drug trafficking charges.

Human Rights Watch has said the former senator had suffered five years in detention for a crime that key witnesses now dispute.

Political and human rights experts have asked DoJ to review Ms. De Lima’s drug trafficking charges.

“Trash the cases,” human rights lawyer Fides M. Lim earlier said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Only the DoJ can put a stop to this prime example of how state prosecution is being used for political persecution as in the case of so many other political prisoners.” — John Victor D. Ordoñez