HOWIE SEE IT: Blind or Blinkered?

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By Atty Howie Calleja

Lady Justice is often depicted with a blindfold, representing the ideal system of law; one where the same legal principles will apply to everyone, irrespective of wealth, rank, race, or status. Our courts are envisioned to allow every man to be judged not as society judges him, and indeed divides him from his fellow Filipino, but to be judged by the letter of the law. The idea that she be blind before all men who come before her celebrates the value of objectivity in our courts, but lately, this seems to be an ideal more than an unshakeable principle. Over the past few years, our justice system has seen an alarming disregard for the rule of law, rather leaning towards selective justice that favors the rich and powerful. Sadly, Lady Justice’s view has been blinkered instead of blind.

Those that refuse to acknowledge the imbalance in our justice system must be forced to review the cases of former politicians who have been convicted of everything from plunder and electoral sabotage, to more violent cases of murder; each more of a flight risk than the last. The latest perversion of the principle of equality before the law came in the form of preventing a young activist from saying her parting words to her infant daughter. While Reina Mae Nasino had to hear from her lawyer that her young daughter was close to death, and again when the latter had passed away, it’s hard to forget the images of politicians and celebrities receiving furlough to attend graduations, birthday parties, and weddings – all without handcuffs. This case a matter of grieving the dead, the others are celebrations of life. Though all should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, only the rich are given the courtesy of dignity. Meanwhile, Reina becomes another name in the list of examples I give to my students to prove that justice and fairness are not always interchangeable.

In our prayers is the Nasino family, who are now facing losing life’s greatest treasure – a child. Filipinos have been known to vehemently safeguard the right to life and the rights of an unborn child, but for some reason, there is a discussion as to what baby River deserved as she took her last breath. Surely, she deserved the hug of her mother. Has compassion been so removed from our concept of justice that we would rather keep an accused in prison than allow an infant to feel her mother’s love in her final moments? River’s grandparents have, over the past year, not only faced the loss of their granddaughter’s life but the fear of the loss of their daughter’s liberty. At this point, we can only pray that their property is not being watched; lest the State aims to complete a trifecta. It seems all too easy for those defending the actions of the police to forget that Reina Nasino is merely an accused, detained for almost a year, and is no less worthy of the right to be innocent until proven guilty than any politician or celebrity, that has stood as an accused, is. The Constitution protects the right of the individual citizen, regardless of their influence, but those tasked with defending it on the streets would claim that an activist in cuffs is more of a threat to the welfare of the country than the politician who keeps our country in poverty.

Why do we act as though prisoners, and detainees, are less deserving of empathy than any other Filipino walking freely on the streets? Unless human rights have meaning in places that are hidden from the media and the watchful eyes of netizens, it cannot be said that we truly value and uphold these rights. Our constitutional right to be treated equally before the law, as well as our international obligations, are not easily misinterpreted. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ensures that persons deprived of their liberty remain to be treated humanely, and with the same respect for the inherent dignity that we afford to every man and woman. The rights of children of detainees, in this case baby River, are likewise safeguarded in multiple treaties and conventions but are perhaps best espoused by the rules adopted by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, which encourage member States to enact legislative measures that would allow for children to stay with their mothers in prison, should the decision be made for the best interest of the child in question. Yet, both the child of the detainee and the detainee herself were not afforded the basic humane treatment that these generally accepted principles in international law proclaim.

To not be afforded the chance to say goodbye was not where Reina Nasino’s troubles ended, as she could only kiss her daughter’s coffin in handcuffs – under the watchful, nay intimidating, eyes of dozens of police. In an effort to rationalize the hoards of policemen, officials stated it was to ensure health regulations were followed. Yet, one could not easily forget the same policemen blatantly ignoring regulations at the height of this pandemic, all for a mañanita. The time she could grieve with her family was likewise reduced, as the three days originally approved by the Court became six hours ever so swiftly. One can easily spot the dichotomy between Malacañang’s statement that the President could not act on this case with the absolute pardon of the rapist-murderer Pemberton just last month. Indeed, it is the duality of man that allows the perversion of the principle of equality before the law – done in order to justify the privileges of those in power.

The agonizingly short life of baby River compels us to raise our concerns about our justice system. Why haven’t we adopted adequate measures, regulations, and facilities in our jail system that would allow new mothers to breastfeed or give their infant children the contact needed, to best raise their chances of survival? Have we legitimized a double standard in the application of the law, particularly the rules on furlough? Lastly, will every issue of injustice only be brought to the attention of the State, and the public, once a social media post becomes viral? How many baby Rivers have we lost?

This tragic and senseless loss should never be forgotten, and baby River should indeed become the inspiration for many to join the collective call to improve our justice system. It is my sincere hope that the infant girl does not become a face in the crowd of the lives unjustly taken from us this year and that she and her mother do not just become the faces of our countrymen denied their rights as detainees. Rather, I hope that this rallying cry of injustice brings us to address the systemic ills rampant in our prison system. Let baby River not die in vain, becoming an icon of token relief and virtue signaling, let her be the catalyst for a movement of the homogenization of compassion and justice.