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Uncertain future for Philippines' freed child prisoners

A court did not say if the children will be released to their parents or to safe and open care homes

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Uncertain future for Philippines' freed child prisoners

Clarita Alia, 62, who lost four sons to what she and human rights groups believe were death squads, shows pictures of her sons at home in Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao on May 8, 2016. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP)

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The Philippine Supreme Court has issued two circulars ordering the release of qualified persons deprived of liberty. These have resulted in the release of almost 10,000 prisoners from the country's grossly overcrowded jails.

The Preda Foundation launched a campaign on April 17 with an article published in The Manila Times and online appealing to Philippine authorities to free some prisoners from jails, especially minors detained in subhuman, overcrowded conditions in youth detention centers called Bahay Pag-asa.

I asked good-hearted people everywhere to appeal to Philippine authorities to set the children free, release some prisoners and to have the most important value shown and taught by Jesus of Nazareth — compassion.  Yes, compassion and concern for the lives of children detained and other prisoners facing a death sentence from Covid-19. The pandemic is sweeping through Philippine jails.

In the April 17 article titled "Free the Child Prisoners Before They Die," I wrote: “Let’s think of the prisoners jailed unjustly for years. Many of them are political prisoners and human rights activists caged like animals, and above all, they who suffer most — the children behind bars. All are in danger of the coronavirus.” 

The column was picked up by social media and widely circulated and with other appeals has reached the Supreme Court, which has shown compassion and concern and made possible the release of 10,000 prisoners forthwith. 

However, the Supreme Court circulars did not specifically mention if the children and youth detained in the local government-managed Bahay Pag-asa will be released to the custody of their parents or transferred to safe and open care homes like that of the Preda Foundation.

The Juvenile Justice Welfare Council that oversees the implementation of the juvenile justice law, of which Preda is a member, released instructions that make it easy for the children to be transferred or released if they are detained without trial or are charged with minor offenses. Judges are advised by the Supreme court to grant reasonable bail or defer court hearings and release minors into house arrest.

Local mayors have the responsibility of saving the children from the Covid-19 pandemic that seems so indiscriminate and spares no one. In effect, without hospital care, the pandemic strangles or suffocates the victim, a very painful traumatic death, isolated and alone. Preda has written to many mayors appealing for compassion, mercy, concern and freedom for these children. I will report the result soon.

Detained children sleep on concrete floors in bare, dirty dark cells, many without charges filed against them. These children without charges could be freed tomorrow by order of the mayor. This is more urgent than ever as evidence revealed recently shows many small children as young as 10 mixed with semi-adults are bullied, beaten and abused.

Filipinos love their children, but do they have any love and compassion for those without parents and detained for living on the streets, homeless and hungry? Caring for them, no matter what other good one does, is essential to the life of a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Besides praying the Our Father, we have to act. Without action for justice and freedom and without care for the abandoned, strangers, the poor and imprisoned, faith and prayer are dead, St. James tells us. What have the Christian churches done or will they do to stop the physical and sexual abuse of small children in society and in the Bahay Pag-asa?

I wrote to Persida Rueda-Acosta, the chief of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), to request that PAO lawyers assigned to courts be directed to apply for the release of the youth on recognizance to their parents or to the Preda Foundation. 

The charity is capable and willing to accept them and keep them safe from Covid-19. In the Preda homes, they will be given care, therapy, education and vocational training and family reconciliation. The Supreme Court ruling allows for prisoners held for cases of lower penalty to be released on recognizance.

We now direct our appeal to PAO lawyers to immediately file motions for release on recognizance of the children to their families or to a professionally managed home like the Preda Foundation, where the children will be safe and get a chance for a new life, and to family court judges to show their compassion and concern for children and youth in local government-managed youth detention centers and Bahay Pag-Asa.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sexual abuse. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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