Baby River, who died in 'cracks' of justice system, laid to rest under tight police watch

Reina Mae Nasino's mother, Marites Asis, knelt before cops outside the funeral home where baby River's remains lay. It was 11:30 am Friday, October 16, and the policemen wanted to wait for 1 pm to bring the infant's remains to the Manila North cemetery.

But clock was ticking. Nasino, a political prisoner to be brought over from the Manila City Jail straight to the cemetery, was only given a 3-hour furlough. Asis was worried Nasino wouldn't be able to maximize her time.

"Wala po akong kinakalaban, gusto ko na pong magkita na po sila (I am not trying to fight anyone, I just want them to see each other)," Asis begged the cops, one of whom had a rifle strapped across his chest.

The day started tense. Cops barred progressive groups from holding placards outside the funeral home in Pandacan.

The government has no clear guideline on rallies. There is no outright prohibition to the constitutional rights to assembly and freedom of expression, but law enforcement uses the prohibition on mass gathering.

The activists were running on borrowed time. They wanted the funeral procession to pass by the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, as part of a condemnation rally for what they said were failures of the court system to protect the baby.

When policemen relented to the request to start early, the family and supporters began to line up behind the funeral car, only to be stunned one more time – the car sped off to the cemetery, throwing out the rally plan.

"We were all forced to run behind. But we couldn’t catch up," said prisoner's rights group Kapatid in an update.

"The police forces want to hijack the whole funeral and delay it. The Funeraria listens to the police not to the family," said Kapatid.

Are we blaming the courts? Yes we are, you could have done something but you did not.

Fides Lim, Kapatid spokesperson

So many cops

There were 43 personnel from different jail units including police who were deployed for the burial, said Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) Spokesperson Xavier Solda.

A handful guarded the funeral home in Pandacan, while the other contingent waited by the gate of the Manila North Cemetery.

When Nasino arrived in full Personel Protective Equipment (PPE) gear and in handcuffs, cops wielding high-powered firearms surrounded her.

This irony was not lost on the activists since lack of manpower was the reason given by the Manila City Jail when they requested the court to reduce the period of Reina Mae's furlough. From a continuous 3-day furlough, Manila Judge Paulino Gallegos cut it to 6 hours, spread on 2 days, 3 hours each.

"Saan ka nakakita na ang pulis ang kumukontrol sa isang libing? Ito ay araw ng paglilibing sa isang musmos na pinagkaitan ng estado ng pagkakataon," said Kapatid.

(Where else can you see a burial controlled by cops? This is the day that we bury a child deprived of opportunities by the State.)

Baby River Funeral

Activist Reina Mae Nasino clad in PPE and fully escorted by jail guards and police, pay her last respects as she attends the burial of her baby, River Nasino, at the Manila North Cemetery on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

A pregnant Reina Mae and other vulnerable political prisoners lost a Supreme Court petition for temporary release amid the pandemic. After she gave birth, Reina Mae also lost her pleas at the lower court to keep her baby inside the jail for a year, or for a hospital stay arrangement while she needs to breastfeed her child. A month after giving birth, mother and baby were separated.

The Interior Department, which supervises both the police and the BJMP, blamed the activists for "provocation."

Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said: “It was the courts that denied their pleadings, who decided on the conditions for her furlough, and yet it is the BJMP that they are crucifying. The BJMP is simply obeying the orders of the court otherwise we will be the one who will be cited for contempt."

Reina Mae's counsels from the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) were considering filing a contempt complaint against the jail guards.

'Lalaya ako nang mas matatag'

When Reina Mae approached her baby's coffin, emotions rose high. The activist cannot properly touch the glass.

Her relatives pleaded. Please, remove the cuffs.

"Hindi naman po 'yan tatakas, kung gusto 'nyo hawakan 'nyo siyang lahat, mahawakan niya lang ang anak niya. Parang awa 'nyo na po (She will not escape, you can all hold her so she can touch her baby (for the last time). Please, we beg mercy)," said a relative.

Lawyer Kathy Panguban tried to bargain: "Ma'am parang awa 'nyo na po, kahit isang kamay lang, kahit isa (Ma'am please we beg you, even just one hand, just one)."

The guards were unmoved and refused.

Reina Mae is on trial for the non-bailable charges of possession of illegal firearms and explosives, arrested amid a crackdown last year by the Duterte government on activists.

Reina Mae dropped out of college to be a full-time activist. She only found out she was pregnant while in jail after her arrest in November 2019. She was only able to care for her daughter for one month because a Manila court sided with jail officials that said there were no adequate facilities for an infant in jail.

"Marami kang ala-ala sa akin (You left me with so many memories)," the mother told her child.

"Lalaya ako nang mas matatag. Lalaya kami nang mas matatag. Hindi tayo nag-iisa. Panandalian lang ang pagdadalamhati natin. Pero maghahanda tayo sa pagbalikwas natin," she told the coffin in tears.

(I will be freed stronger. We will be freed stronger. Our grief is temporary. We will be ready to rise again.)

'Fell through the cracks'

Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president Domingo "Egon" Cayosa said baby River was an innocent child who "fell through the cracks" of the justice system.

"The heartbreaking and brief life-story of Baby River Nasino compel us to raise these questions: Why can’t our justice system safeguard the needs and rights of an innocent child to breastfeeding and a better chance to survive?" said Cayosa in a statement.

Cayosa also condemned the "double standards" and "greater privileges" of high-profile detainees who have been granted longer furlough for less compelling reasons like attending family occasions.

The prosecution under the Department of Justice (DOJ) did not oppose the motions for furlough. But the different Manila courts listened to the manifestation of the jail officials, and sided with them. (PODCAST: Law of Duterte Land: Philippine courts and the death of baby River)

"We sympathize with the accused for her personal loss, but her case is now before the court and the judicial process has to move on," said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, whose DOJ will soon release the internal rules of a feared anti-terror law that is seen to legally target activists even more.

"Our justice system, like all systems created by human beings, is not a perfect system. It's development is a work that is continually in progress," said Guevarra.

In all of this, people look to the Supreme Court – could they have done more to protect Baby River, especially since they had on their hands for 5 months a petition that could have given humanitarian reliefs to Reina Mae.

In the end, the justices settled for a decision to remand the requests back to the respective lower courts, in a 301-page decision and opinions that did not even officially acknowledge that Reina Mae had already given birth while waiting.

Kapatid Spokesperson Fides Lim said she wrote letters to the Supreme Court to inform them that Reina Mae had given birth. Lim said she received acknowledgments of receipt from the Court – add to that the wide media coverage not only of the birth, but of the court order that separated mother and child.

If the Supreme Court took judicial notice of that, and had been more proactive, NUPL's Ephraim Cortez said: "Perhaps nakapag provide sila ng immediate relief dun sa ina at sa bata at possibly nagkaroon ng intervention at na prevent ang trahedya na nangyari sa bata."

(Perhaps they could have provided immediate relief to the mother and child, and possibly there could have been intervention that prevented the tragedy that befell this child.)

"Are we blaming the courts? Yes we are, you could have done something but you did not," said Kapatid Spokesperson Fides Lim. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

image