Philippines River
Activist Reina Mae Nasino is surrounded by armed Philippine guards during the burial of her daughter on Friday, Oct. 16 in Manila. PHOTO: MARIA SOL TAULE / NATIONAL UNION OF PEOPLE'S LAWYERS

Handcuffed Philippine Activist in Hazmat Suit Buries Baby in Tense Funeral

The tragic case has shocked the Southeast Asian country.
October 16, 2020, 11:56am

Handcuffed and wearing a hazmat suit, a detained activist in the Philippines buried her baby daughter on Friday in an emotional chapter of a controversy that has gripped the country and spurred accusations of double standards in the justice system.

Activist Reina Mae Nasino, 23, was arrested last year during a raid on her Manila office where she worked with an organization that supports the urban poor. She was charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives but lawyers said the charges were made up to harass human rights workers like her.


She did not know she was pregnant when she went to jail and in July she gave birth to a daughter, naming her River. Philippine law allows newborns to stay with their mothers in prison for a month and authorities separated the pair in August, leaving River with relatives.

The newborn's health deteriorated and calls for her mother to be released made headlines. Outrage grew after River died of pneumonia on Oct. 9, and reignited when Nasino was given only a few hours to attend the funeral of her three-month-old child at a cemetery in Manila on Friday.

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Reina Mae Nasino bids her final goodbye to her baby River. Guards refused to remove her handcuffs. PHOTO: KARAPATAN

In a somber and tense ceremony watched over by armed police, activists and the media, a tearful Nasino addressed River in the small coffin before it was placed in a tomb. "Don’t worry," she said. "Our mourning is short. We will rise up and fight back!"

An officiating priest begged officers to undo her handcuffs but they refused, and Nasino could only touch the coffin with her fingertips.

"How can she wipe her tears when her hands are bound by handcuffs?" Nasino's mother Marites Asis called out.

"This is inhumane," Nasino's lawyer Katherine Panguban told VICE News afterwards. "They desecrated the child's final moments with the grieving family and supporters. Even at the last minute, they did not remove Reina's handcuffs. She could not even hug her child's remains."


In the Philippines, mourners often walk slowly and solemnly during street funeral marches and the traffic gives way to trailing family members and supporters. But a brief altercation erupted between authorities and sympathizers after the police convoy and funeral car started driving too fast, making a slow march impossible.

Responding to criticism, Philippine authorities said in a statement that police were "professional" and accused activists of wanting a media spectacle. They have also said the short, three-hour furlough at the cemetery was meant to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus and bringing it back to the packed prison.

But critics were quick to contrast the case with what happened to U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was pardoned last month by President Rodrigo Duterte after serving only six years of his sentence for murdering Filipino trans woman Jennifer Laude.

The hashtags #JusticeForBabyRiver, #FreeReinaMae and #OustDuterte trended on Twitter during the heavily publicized funeral.


Police try to stop sympathizers and activists who run after the funeral car carrying baby River's remains after it sped off and left the grieving family behind. PHOTO: ANTHONY ESGUERRA

Others pointed out that Philippine courts have a history of giving furloughs on "humanitarian grounds" to prominent high-profile detainees including politicians facing corruption charges who are permitted to attend family events and holidays.

"Why does it take so long to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights? Isn't there double standards when 'bigger' detainees are allowed similar or even greater privileges?" Domingo Egon Cayosa, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, said in a statement.