Baby River with her mother Reina Mae Nasino in the hospital on the day of her birth
The Philippines were shocked by the death of a three-month-old baby who was separated from its imprisoned mother despite requests to keep the couple together, BBC’s Preeti Jha reports.
Reina Mae Nasino, a human rights worker, did not know she was pregnant when she was arrested in Manila last year. She attributed her missed time to the stress of a night police raid in which she was arrested along with two other activists.
It was only during a medical examination in prison that the 23-year-old discovered that she was in her first trimester.
The death of Ms. Nasino’s newborn baby last week – less than two months after the baby was taken out of care – has raised questions about the treatment of Filipino mothers in custody as many expressed anger at the judicial system at the child’s failure.
A challenging birth
Ms. Nasino, who worked for the urban poverty group Kadamay, was arrested with two fellow activists in November 2019 after police raided an office where they lived at the time.
They have been charged with the illegal possession of firearms and explosives – charges all three have denied. They say the ammunition was planted by the authorities in an increasing crackdown on left-wing activists.
- “My face was on a wanted poster”
Despite the circumstances, Ms. Nasino is “very excited to be a mother,” said her lawyer Josalee Deinla. Prepared for the challenge of giving birth in custody, she knew the trials would likely be lengthy.
But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Philippines, their concerns grew rapidly. The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, a legal aid group representing Ms. Nasino, filed a number of motions calling for her release.
The first in April called for the temporary release of 22 political prisoners most susceptible to contracting the coronavirus, including Ms. Nasino. Later petitions asked the court to allow the activist and her baby to stay together in the hospital or prison in the Manila City where she was detained.
“We were shocked that the court would reject such a plea. The judge only had to view the motions as a human being from her own perspective. Unfortunately, compassion and mercy were not extended to mother and child,” said Ms. Deinla.
The Masino River was born on July 1st. Her birth weight was low, but after a few days she and Ms. Nasino were returned to Manila City Prison, where they lived in a makeshift room reserved for them.
Under Filipino law, a child born in custody can only stay with the mother for the first month of his or her life, but exceptions can be made. In comparison, children of mothers incarcerated in Malaysia are allowed to stay with them until they are three or four years old. In the UK, Women’s and Baby Units allow women to stay with their babies until they are 18 months old.
Activists urged pressuring authorities to release Ms. Masino and her baby.
“We tied blue ribbons to the poles of the gates of the Supreme Court. They stood for River, the essence of life. We put candles outside. But they weren’t listening,” said Fides Lim, who runs Kapatid, a support group Families and friends of political prisoners in the Philippines.
Ms. Nasino’s mother (in blue) had fought for her daughter and granddaughter’s right to stay together
Ms. Nasino’s mother, supported by Kapatid, forwarded photos and letters to the authorities almost every week, pleading for her daughter’s release
“We knew the importance of breastfeeding Baby River,” said Ms. Lim, who also advocates the urgent release of her husband, a political prisoner aged 70.
The hospital where Ms. Nasino was born recommended keeping the baby with her mother, said Ms. Nasino’s lawyer, Ms. Deinla. “But the prison authorities said they lacked the resources. They had many excuses that violated the child’s right to their mother’s breast milk,” she said.
According to the Bangkok Rules – UN guidelines for the treatment of women prisoners – decisions about when to separate a child from its mother should be based on the best interests of the child.
The BBC has reached out to the Filipino prison authorities for comment but has not yet received a response.
On August 13, Baby River was separated from her mother. Mrs. Nasino was “inconsolable,” said Mrs. Deinla. “She didn’t want to give up her baby. In fact, she argued that the baby should be allowed to stay longer.”
Due to the Covid-19 rules, which restrict access to prisoners, Ms. Deinla and her colleagues could only stay in contact with Ms. Nasino by phone.
According to Ms. Lim, Baby River’s health began to deteriorate over the following month. The newborn was placed in the care of her grandmother, Ms. Nasino’s mother, who told the support group the family was “very concerned because the baby has diarrhea,” Ms. Lim said.
The demand for a mother and child reunification became more urgent when River was hospitalized on September 24 and her condition worsened. But Mrs. Nasino was still not allowed to see her baby.
Last week River died of pneumonia that was just over three months old. Her death shocked many in the Philippines, where honors and sympathies have flowed on social media.
Many have also expressed anger at the judicial system. Some have compared the recent pardon of a U.S. Marine convicted of the murder of a transgender woman in the Philippines to the court’s refusal to allow Ms. Nasino to see her dying baby. “* Selective * justice is served,” wrote a Twitter user.
Others stressed the difference in the treatment of the young activist as compared to high-ranking and wealthier prisoners, who were allowed temporary release to attend events such as weddings or their children’s graduation.
On Tuesday, a local court granted Ms. Nasino a three-day vacation to attend her daughter’s trail and funeral.
After prison officials intervened to shorten her release, she was only allowed out of prison for three hours on Wednesday and Friday, the day of River’s funeral.