By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — The worldwide association of writers PEN International marked the 31st Annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer last November 15. It was a day to recognize and support writers at risk, and for the last 31 years, the group has commemorated the day to raise awareness on the unjust imprisonment and persecution of writers around the world.
This year, PEN International highlighted cases from Iran, Philippines, Mexico, Turkey and Ethiopia. In the Philippines, the group chose to give attention to the case of writer, poet and singer Ericson Acosta who has been imprisoned without trial since February 2011 on trumped up criminal charges at the Calbayog sub-provincial jail in Samar.
Philippine PEN led by its vice-chairman Elmer Ordoñez and Committee on Writers in Prison head writer and painter Jun Cruz Reyes coordinated with the Free Ericson Acosta Campaign (FEAC) and the Congress of Teachers for Nationalism and Democracy (Contend) of the University of the Philippines in Manila held a writers forum in UP Manila. It was attended by editors and reporters from various campus-based publications allied with the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, as well as representatives from various writers groups.
Words as weapons for truth and justice
Ordoñez said PEN Philippines remains true to the reason for its inception over three decades ago.
“It is an organization that supported writers who experienced the drama of repression, supporting writers who were harassed and imprisoned during Marcos’ martial law like Ed Maranan, Pete Lacaba and Jose Ma. Sison. It now gives its support to Ericson and appeals to all Filipino writers to take a stand against the attacks against his rights as a writer and as a Filipino,” he said.
Reyes, in turn, said Acosta’s imprisonment is a testament to the effectiveness of words as weapons in the fight for humanity and justice.
“Ericson is a writer who continues to defend his right to write about what he sees as injustice in society. When a gun is used, the target of the bullet is one person at a time. When we write about our beliefs, we allow our words to shoot out into world and reach many, many people. It has been said time and again that the role of artists and writers is to be the conscience of society, to describe and depict it as it is, and to call for what is needed, be it justice, genuine democracy, or true freedom. Poets write about his own time in history,and his is a struggle to reclaim humanity against indifference and idiocy,” he said.
Reyes decried how despite the proliferation of various social media, many Filipinos still do not know what is happening in the country and the state of human rights. The mainstream news networks, he said, does not report what is important, only what is sensational.
“In the mornings we wake up to news broadcasts about who was killed, who his killer is, and the CCTV unit that captured the killer. Then in social media networks like Facebook, there are so many who refuse to share or forward stories or memes that decry how the rights of the poor are trampled on, but would willingly share stories about animals. Animals are important, yes, but compare the importance of the whale shark or the tarsier with that of human lives being snuffed out by injustice,” he said.
Freedom even within prison
Angie Ipong, secretary general of the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda) said it’s imperative that Acosta and the rest of the 400 other political detainees all over the country be released because of what they can still do as free individuals.
“They were imprisoned because of their political beliefs, because they sought what is good and just for the oppressed and the poor. The government disagrees with these beliefs, and took action to deny their freedom. If Ericson were free,there is no doubt that he would write more about Philippine society and its ills. It’s an outrage that he should remain imprisoned simply because he sought to write and expose what he saw and felt to be wrong in this country,” she said.
A former political detainee for six years herself, Ipong said, she knows exactly the frustration Acosta feels in prison.
“The knowledge that one is imprisoned because one is fighting against injustice is some comfort, but it still weighs heavily on the hearts of political prisoners. The outrage, the anger political detainees feel is channeled against the government and the system of injustice it represents. I am and never was a writer, but I was able to begin and finish writing two books during my six years in prison. I wrote about what life was in detention, and what I felt against the brutality and sexual molestation I suffered in the hands of the military,” she said.
Ipong, 63, was previously charged with two counts of rebellion, double murder, and illegal possession of explosives. She finished writing “Garden behind bars” and ” A Red Rose for Andrea” in prison.
As of end of September 2012, the human rights group Karapatan has monitored the continuing detention of 401 political prisoners, 123 of them arrested under the Aquino administration.
“With the support of international groups like PEN, the call to free all prisoners will reverberate to other parts of the world and we will not stop enjoining others to this campaign until all political prisoners are freed,” Ipong said.
Poet and former member of the Tagaytay 5 political detainees Axel Pinpin read one of his poems for Acosta from his own anthology “Tulang Matatabil,” and said that he while he has not met Acosta personally, he feels a kinship with him as a fellow activist and poet, and because he himself was a political prisoner. Under the Macapagal-Arroyo regime, Pinpin was imprisoned for two years and four months in Camp Vicente Lim on charges of rebellion.
“There is no doubt that Ericson will continue to create poetry out of all that he suffers now because of the Aquino government’s policy of violating the rights of all political dissenters. He may be behind bars, but his spirit and his imagination cannot be imprisoned and it flies free. His will and his continuing commitment to the cause of national democracy is an inspiration to other writers and artists who embrace the cause of the oppressed classes,” he said.
Death threats against the Acosta family
In reaction to the messages of support, Acosta’s father Isaias said he, his wife Liwayway and the rest of the Acosta family gain strength from the knowledge that they are not alone in campaigning for his son’s release.
“We want so much for Ericson to be freed so we can be with him for all the days and weeks and months that remain to our lives. My wife and I are old and our bodies are not as strong as they used to be. All we want is for Ericson to walk free, but we know it cannot be done simply by insisting on the laws that were violated when he was arrested, tortured and detained: we have to rely on the support of all Filipinos who decry what has been done to him and what continues to done against him in prison,” he said.
Isaias said that late last October he received a text message saying that Acosta would be killed on November 1. When November 1 passed and nothing untoward happened to Acosta in jail, Isaias received another text message.
“Whoever sent the text said that they could not get to Ericson in prison, but it would be an honor to kill his parents. I texted back, ‘you should just come out in the open and we can talk about this,” he said.
Acosta is one of the subjects of the documentary called “Chained Metaphors” which explores the subject of imprisoned Filipino artists and writers throughout history, among them national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. He was also a finalist for the Imprisoned Artist Prize at the Freedom to Create Awards Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.
The finalists in the Artist in Prison category were picked from among over 2000 nominees from 145 countries by a select jury that included actress and filmmaker Daryl Hannah, novelist Salman Rushdie and ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others.
In closing, novelist Reyes said the campaign to free Acosta is a campaign for human rights and the rights of writers to express, to criticize and to join the struggle for social change.
“There is so much that writers can do to help bring light to this country in darkness because of injustice. When we write about the limits being set against our freedoms, we struggle to bring back dignity and justice. The social discourse may appear to be in disconnected pieces, but it is actually in one continued thread because at its end are the oppressors and exploiters. Writers should see this discourse and change it towards one of freedom and liberty, where we are free to speak out against what is wrong and to take action against it. Free Ericson Acosta, free all political prisoners,” Reyes said.