In the dead of the night on November 5, 2019, men in uniform armed with search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge, barged into the office of BAYAN Manila in Tondo, where Reina Mae Nasino, Ram Carlo Bautista and Alma Moran were sleeping over. At the time of the search and arrest, Reina Mae was a community organizer for urban poor group KADAMAY. Meanwhile, Ram is part of progressive peoples’ organization, BAYAN in Manila and Alma is an organizer for Manila Workers’ Unity, a member organization of BAYAN. All of these organizations have been maliciously tagged as legal fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines in the past.

The police would later claim that firearms and explosives were allegedly discovered among their personal belongings. The three, however, asserted that the said items were planted by the raiding team. Reina Mae, Ram and Alma were subsequently charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Their cases are now pending before the Manila Regional Trial Court.

At the time of her arrest, Reina Mae was pregnant. She gave birth while imprisoned to an underweight infant, baby River Emmanuelle, who would later be separated from her mother and denied of her mother’s breast milk which could have kept her healthy and prevented her untimely demise according to health experts. Baby River Emmanuelle would die a month after she was ordered separated from her mother in jail. She was only 3 months old due to acute respiratory distress syndrome.

And just a few weeks after laying to rest baby River Emmanuelle, news broke out of another baby facing this same predicament of having his mother arrested and imprisoned. This time, it is baby Randall Emmanuel, the month old baby of Amanda Lacaba Echanis. Amanda, like Reina Mae, is a human rights defender working with peasant women organization, AMIHAN. A few months back, her father, Randall Echanis, also a peasant rights defender was brutally murdered in his residence. Amanda, like Reina Mae, is now facing trumped up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. She and her baby are now currently detained in Cagayan Provincial Jail.

Jail authorities in the Manila City Jail Female Dormitory have justified baby River’s early and forced separation by citing a BJMP Memorandum Circular No. 2010-02. They cited a provision in it which supposedly states that babies of women prisoners are allowed to stay with their mothers for a period not exceeding 30 days. However, the rule allows for exception when the health conditions of the baby requires in which case the baby may be allowed to stay with her mother beyond 30 days.

Baby River’s case falls squarely with the exception considering that she was born underweight. In fact, it was clearly directed by the medical practitioners of Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital that baby River should be breastfed upon demand or at least every 2 hours. All of these facts were, however, ignored.

Nevertheless, a careful perusal of the provisions of this BJMP Memorandum Circular No. 2010-02 would show that despite admitting some exceptions, it runs counter with the universal right to health of infants, in relation to the positive and express mandate of both domestic legislation, RA 7600 as amended by RA 10028 otherwise known as the Expanded Breastfeeding Law, as well as the international law covering women prisoners known as the Bangkok Rules.

The Expanded Breastfeeding Law expressly adopts as a State policy, the promotion and encouragement of breastfeeding infants as it recognizes the optimum health benefits breastfeeding provides for babies. Section 2 of the law provides that:

“Sec. 2. Declaration of Policy. – The State adopts rooming-in as a national policy to encourage, protect and support the practice of breastfeeding. It shall create an environment where basic physical, emotional, and psychological needs of mothers and infants are fulfilled through the practice of rooming-in and breastfeeding. xxx”

As such, the law requires both government agencies and private entities to implement measures that would ensure breastfeeding activities in their jurisdiction.[1] Likewise, it encourages breastfeeding of infants up to 12 months from childbirth.[2] Nowhere in the said legislation distinguishes and discriminates against infants whose mothers are detention prisoners or otherwise judicially deprived of their liberties. Further, the law does not exclude public institutions, such as jail facilities in the country, from implementing the requirements it expressly provides for the protection of breastfeeding mothers and their infants.

More importantly, this particular BJMP rule renders nugatory the time-honored legal principle of protecting the best interests of the child, as a benchmark that shall guide State authorities in resolving issues where a minor is involved. In the 2018 case of Masbate vs. Relucio[3], the Supreme Court once again defined the best interests of the child as the “the totality of the circumstances and conditions as are most congenial to the survival, protection, and feelings of security of the minor encouraging to [her] physical, psychological and emotional development. It also means the least detrimental available alternative for safeguarding the growth and development of the minor.”

Experts have, time and again, underscored the importance of breastfeeding for the health, growth and development of an infant. Breastfeeding, indeed, is a condition “most congenial to the survival” of a baby. Hence, our jail authorities are invited to take a second hard look on the provisions of their BJMP Memorandum Circular No. 2010-02. It would definitely work well for the best interests of the child to ensure that the penal institution’s policies are cognizant and promote human rights and welfare of women prisoners, particularly the pregnant and nursing mothers, for the protection of their unborn and infants.

While it can be said that provincial jails are under the authority of the local government unit and this BJMP memorandum finds no application to the case of baby Randall Emmanuel, let us not fail to look at the bigger picture as to why the rights to life and to optimum health of these babies, these two Emmanuelle/els, have been put on the line by the apparent loopholes in our justice and penal system.

The mothers of babies River Emmanuelle and Randall Emmanuel are behind bars, enduring the dismal conditions in prison, due to false and fabricated criminal charges against them. Prior to their arrests, Reina Mae and Amanda are both human rights defenders whose organizations have been vilified and maliciously tagged as terrorist front groups. Now, with these trumped up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives against Reina Mae and Amanda, they are painted before the public as one of the enemies of the government. These charges, despite its ludicrousness, fit in the authorities’ narrative of linking progressive organizations with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, sans competent, credible and admissible evidence. Reina Mae and Amanda have asserted neither ownership nor possession of such firearms and explosives. They decry that these pieces of evidence were “planted” by the raiding authorities among their personal belongings since day 1 of their arrests.

Clearly, the dangers of red-tagging and the weaponization of criminal statutes against human rights defenders cannot be simply ignored since these lead from one human rights violation to the next, as what the world witnessed in the past months in the case of baby River Emmanuelle Nasino. Filing fabricated criminal charges against human rights defenders, in an orchestrated effort to silence critics and instill fear, led to the death of baby River Emmanuelle, and now to the suffering and uncertainties for baby Randall Emmanuel. We do not want to wake up, having another baby River Emmanuelle suffer through such ordeal. This practice of peddling lies through malicious and baseless red-tagging, of contorting facts and laws to the ridicule of the justice system must be stopped and all those responsible for these violations must be held accountable for their criminal acts.

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