In the fabled Land of Yellow where the President lays claim to the democratic mantle by being progeny to parents who fought a dictator, there lies hidden in the crowded, dank and dark crevices of the realm some 350 plus political prisoners.
Officially denied as existing; labelled as terrorists and treated as plain criminals without exception; hardly worth passing mention in the mass media except when the military announces the arrest of an alleged top-ranking communist cadre – they are denied their basic right to due process and consigned by the state to rot in jail while the wheels of justice are made to grind exceedingly slow.
A new book written by Angie Ipong, the oldest woman political prisoner until her release last year, together with some of her fellow prisoners of conscience entitled “A Red Rose for Andrea”, graphically lays bare the gravest human rights violations and injustices inflicted on Filipino political prisoners. At the same time, the book inspires and uplifts as it talks about their continuing struggles for freedom and justice, prisoners’ rights and welfare and reforms in the prison system, despite the most repressive prison conditions.
Ipong and co-writers describe their personal experiences that consistently include a litany of violations – illegal and warrantless arrest and detention; physical and psychological torture; denial of access to legal counsel and family members; harsh if not inhumane conditions of detention; multiple manufactured criminal charges; agonizingly prolonged and unfair processes of indictment, arraignment and trial; and finally, wrongful conviction. These harrowing experiences are premised on the prisoners’ ironical good fortune of not having become victims of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killing.
One can imagine such brutalization happening under fascist martial rule almost half a century ago. But not today, not under the aegis of supposedly democratic rule where the current President does not tire of reminding the country about his moral rectitude, his democratic credentials and his experience as a so-called human rights victim.
Of course military captors offer the political prisoner two options during the period of tactical interrogation: cooperate and receive good treatment or resist and be subjected to a nightmarish experience you would not even wish your worst enemy.
For those who choose the former it could mean admitting to crimes you didn’t commit or implicating and causing the illegal arrest of others. From then on, such a coopted political prisoner becomes a witting or unwitting tool of the military in the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns until he or she becomes expendible and even becomes a victim of extra-judicial killing conveniently attributed to the rebel New People’s Army.
On the other hand, those who are able to summon the strength of character and conviction to assert their rights, survive the torture and retain their integrity as political activists, eventually discover that by so doing they can continue to struggle to defeat the repressive system even under detention.
Who then are the political prisoners in the Philippines?
An unpublished paper of KARAPATAN, the country’s leading human rights organization, calling for the grant of general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty for political prisoners, describes them as “those who are arrested, detained or imprisoned for acts in furtherance of their political and social beliefs; (a)s a consequence, they are arbitrarily and unjustly denied their liberty and due process of law.”
KARAPATAN points out that the phenomenon of political prisoners in the Philippines must be seen in the context of an intractable armed conflict with deep socio-economic and political roots. Seething social discontent and organized political dissent have been met with fascist repression by all governments since the inauguration of the republic after US colonial rule.
While it stands to reason that such prisoners should be charged with political offenses, i.e. rebellion, sedition and variations thereof, they are invariably slapped with criminal offenses, usually trumped up and based on fabricated evidence, in order to deny the political nature of their alleged offenses and unjustly keep them behind bars.
In so doing government stigmatizes political prisoners as plain criminals guilty of the most heinous crimes such as murder, multiple murder, frustrated murder, arson, kidnapping, robbery in band, illegal possession of firearms and others.
This also serves the government’s objective of keeping the true extent of illegal arrests and detention suffered by political/social activists, government critics, dissidents and ordinary folk, from being made public and denigrating its human rights record.
More and more, the Aquino regime is proving itself no different, if not worse, than its predecessors in that its pronouncements and posturing have even raised false hopes among some quarters.
At the start of the Aquino administration, high-profile opposition figures, military officers accused of fomenting rebellion against the previous Arroyo regime, were immediately released from detention followed by a general amnesty for about 400 more officers and men similarly situated.
With the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government (GPH) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) a year and a half later, there were renewed hopes that freedom for most if not all political prisoners was at hand, especially those already due for release on humanitarian grounds or whose cases stood on the flimsiest legal basis as well as NDFP consultants covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG).
But this was not to be. The GPH-NDFP peace talks fell into an impasse soon after its resumption last year ostensibly over the issue of whether the GPH was obligated to release all or most of 17 JASIG-protected persons agreed upon in the last round of talks in Oslo. GPH denies it has such an obligation and puts the blame on the NDFP for problems in verifying the identities of the aforementioned individuals.
The NDFP for its part asserts that not only does the GPH have such a commitment, it also has such an obligation under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed in 1998. It states that the government “shall abide by its doctrine laid down in People vs. Hernandez … and shall forthwith review the cases of all prisoners or detainees who have been charged, detained or convicted contrary to this doctrine, and shall immediately release them.”
A recent positive development for the cause of political prisoners is the call by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), a gathering of religious leaders from five major religious federations, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) , the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) , the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP), and the Ecumenical Bishops Forum (EBF).
Late last year, the PEPP called for the release of all political prisoners, including the remaining detained NDFP consultants, while reiterating their appeal to the GPH and the NDFP to immediately resume their formal peace talks.
Early last month, the PEPP followed this up with a more specific call to the GPH to release the remaining detained NDFP consultants in whatever is the most expeditious manner, so that the formal peace talks could resume. The PEPP underscored the earnestness of their call by offering to serve collectively as custodians of those consultants who could be released on recognizance.
Both sides appear to be open to this opportunity for overcoming the current deadlock in the peace talks but for things to move forward, greater public support must be generated.
Anyway one looks at it, the cry for freedom for all political prisoners must resonate into a deafening roar until the Aquino government’s claims, if not pretensions, to an upright and just governance, can be put to an acid test.
Published in Business World
16-17 March 2012