Prison reform a cornerstone of Marcos gov’t, DoJ chief tells UN

JAIL reform is a cornerstone of Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s government, including decongesting one of the world’s most overcrowded prison systems, his Justice chief told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday.

The state is aware of the problems besetting local prisons and is trying to solve systemic issues of the criminal justice system, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla told UN member states.

“The approach of our new administration is a whole-nation, all-government solution to every step of the criminal justice process,” according to a copy of a speech sent by his office. “No longer shall our penal code be used, abused or weaponized.”

Norway, Thailand and Indonesia arranged the dialogue on human rights and prison reforms as a side event of the UN Human Rights Council’s 52nd session.

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

Mr. Remulla said the Bureau of Corrections had cut the number of inmates more than four times to about 50,000 last year from the 2021 level. He added that the government had released 4,124 inmates since he assumed office on July 1.

Last year, the Justice secretary told the UN Council the government was seeking to free 5,000 inmates by June this year.

The DoJ on Tuesday said it would require government prosecutors to file criminal cases that would lead to a “reasonable certainty of conviction” to ease jail congestion. It also halved the bail for poor Filipinos.

“There are a lot of challenges in our mission to reform our jail and prison system and our unique situation drives us to find new ways to hurdle them,” Mr. Remulla said.

“These challenges inspire us to do much more to benefit our children and future Filipinos,” he added.

Last year, the Philippines accepted 200 UN Human Rights Council recommendations, including investigating extralegal killings and protecting journalists.

More than 30 member-states of the UN Human Rights Council in November urged the Philippine government to do something about extralegal killings and human rights abuses in connection with ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

Last week, a delegation of lawmakers from the European Union (EU) said the Philippines should rejoin the International Criminal Court (ICC) to reinforce its commitment to human rights.

They met with human rights groups, Philippine lawmakers and other state officials to discuss the country’s human rights situation.

“The human rights situation is better than it was under former President Rodrigo R. Duterte, I think we can clearly state,” Hannah Neumann, vice chairperson of the European Parliament subcommittee on human rights, told a press briefing last week.

“We’d be very happy to see the Philippines rejoin the Rome Statute of the ICC as it would clearly reinforce the government’s commitment to fighting impunity,” he added.

She said Philippine officials and lawmakers seemed more willing to discuss reported rights violations than the previous administration.

Mr. Duterte canceled Philippine membership in the international tribunal in 2018. President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has said the country would not rejoin the ICC.

Last month, the ICC pre-trial chamber reopened its investigation of the killings and so-called crimes against humanity under Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs.

The Hague-based tribunal said it was not satisfied with Philippine efforts to probe the deaths.

Mr. Remulla told the EU lawmakers on Feb. 23 the Philippine government could investigate extralegal killings under the war on drugs without the ICC’s help.

Philippine police arrested 8,183 drug suspects in 6,044 illegal drug operations from the start of the year to Feb. 11, national police chief General Rodolfo S. Azurin, Jr. told a news briefing on Feb. 13. 

The Philippine government estimates that at least 6,117 suspected drug dealers had been killed in police operations. Human rights groups say as many as 30,000 suspects died.

“The new administration of President Marcos is not blind to the cries of inmates, their friends and families,” Mr. Remulla said. “We do not see numbers, ladies and gentlemen, but human rights with dignity and rights.” — John Victor D. Ordoñez