Anger over death of baby separated from jailed mother in Philippines

Baby River with her mother Reina Mae Nasino
Baby River with her mother Reina Mae Nasino at hospital on the day of her birth

The death of a three-month-old baby separated from her jailed mother despite pleas to keep the pair together has shocked the Philippines. Reina Mae Nasino, a human rights worker, didn’t know she was pregnant when she was arrested last year in Manila, she put her missed period down to the stress of a night-time police raid in which she was arrested, alongside two fellow activists, it was only during a medical examination in prison that the 23-year-old found out she was in her first trimester.

The death of Ms Nasino’s newborn last week, less than two months after the baby was removed from her care has raised questions about the treatment of Philippine mothers in custody as many voiced their anger at the justice system for failing the child. Ms Nasino, who worked for the urban poverty group Kadamay, was arrested in November 2019 with two fellow activists after police raided an office where they lived at the time, they were charged with the illegal possession of firearms and explosives – charges all three have denied. They say the ammunition was planted by authorities amid a widening crackdown against left-leaning activists, despite the circumstances, Ms Nasino “was quite excited to be a mother”, her lawyer Josalee Deinla said. She was prepared for the challenge of giving birth in custody and aware the legal proceedings were likely to be lengthy, but as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Philippines, her concerns grew rapidly. The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, a legal aid group representing Ms Nasino, filed a series of motions calling for her release.

The first one in April urged the temporary release of 22 political prisoners most vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus, including Ms Nasino, later motions asked the court to allow the activist and her baby to remain together in hospital or at the Manila City Jail where she was detained. We were shocked that the court would deny such a plea. The judge only needed to consider the motions from her own perspective as a human. But unfortunately compassion and mercy were not extended to mother and child, said Ms Deinla. River Masino was born on 1 July, her birth weight was low but after a few days she and Ms Nasino returned to Manila City Jail where they stayed in a makeshift room reserved for them.

Under Philippine law a child born in custody can remain with the mother for only the first month of their life, though exceptions can be made, by comparison, children born to mothers detained in Malaysia are permitted to remain with them until the age of three or four, in the UK, mother and baby units enable women to stay with their infants till they reach 18 months, campaigners persisted in pressing authorities to release Ms Masino and her baby.

Ms Nasino's mother and campaigners
Ms Nasino’s mother (in blue) had been fighting for the right of her daughter and granddaughter to remain together

The hospital where Ms Nasino gave birth recommended the baby be kept with her mother, said Ms Nasino’s lawyer, Ms Deinla, but the prison authorities said they lacked the resources. They came up with a lot of excuses, violating the child’s right to her mother’s breast milk, she said. It was not immediately possible to get a response from Philippine prison authorities.

Last week, River died from pneumonia, just over three months old, her death has shocked many in the Philippines, where tributes and sympathies have flowed on social media, early on Tuesday, a local court granted Ms Nasino a three-day furlough, starting Wednesday, to attend the wake and funeral of her daughter, later in the day, prison officials attempted to reduce the length of her compassionate release. Many have also expressed their anger at the justice system, with some comparing the recent pardon granted to a US marine convicted of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines with the court’s refusal to allow Ms Nasino to see her dying baby. “Selective justice is served,” wrote a Twitter user.

Others highlighted the difference in how the young activist was treated compared to higher profile and more wealthy prisoners who have been allowed temporary release to attend events such as their children’s weddings or graduations.

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