Sunday, June 13, 2010

Will Noynoy Aquino Free Political Prisoners?

Will Noynoy Aquino Free Political Prisoners?*


MANILA — One of the very first acts of the late president Cory Aquino was to free political prisoners to fulfill her campaign promise and to pave the way for the transition from martial law to the restoration of the Filipino people’s formal democratic rights. The same was done by former president Fidel V. Ramos. Will the incoming Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino presidency do the same?

Under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime, from January 2001 to March 2010, Karapatan’s data showed that there are 317 political prisoners languishing in different jails all over the country, including the 43 health workers. All these political prisoners, like the 43 health workers, are charged with common crimes, mostly non-bailable offenses such as murder, frustrated murder, kidnapping, arson, among others. Only a few have been charged with political offenses such as rebellion, which is bailable.

“If Aquino has the political will, he can do it (free the prisoners),” Fr. Diony Cabillas, member of the national secretariat secretariat of the Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Para sa Amnestiya (Selda) said. “At the minimum, we call for a speedy trial of their cases,” Cabillas said.

Rebellion is Not a Crime

The filing of common crimes against political dissenters is a violation of the Amado V. Hernandez doctrine. The Hernandez doctrine became part of Philippine jurisprudence when, in 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in the case People of the Philippines vs. Hernandez that a person who commits a political offense could be charged with rebellion but not with common crimes such as murder, arson, robbery, etc. It ruled that the act of rebellion would already include and absorb these crimes.

The Philippines is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Protesters call for the release of political prisoners outside Camp Crame, headquarters of the Philippine National Police (Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea /

Based on Karapatan’s documentation, Fr. Diony Cabillas said it usually took three days after arrest before the political prisoners were surfaced in jails or presented to the media.

During interrogation most detainees were blindfolded and handcuffed, said Cabillas. Ed Sarmiento who was arrested in Northern Samar was one of the examples of political prisoners who were blindfolded, handcuffed and deprived of sleep for three days following his arrest in February 2009.

All Political Prisoners were Tortured

All political prisoners under the Arroyo regime suffered various forms of torture, physical and psychological.

Angelina Ipong for instance, 60 when abducted on March 8, 2005, was taken by more than ten armed men wearing bonnets and fatigue shorts and identifying themselves as police-CIDG (Criminal Investigation and Detection Group). She was handcuffed, blindfolded and then brought to the Bulacan Tabak Division Headquarters. For 14 days, Ipong was kept in complete isolation.

A fact sheet prepared by Karapatan recorded: “On March 11, Angie was brought to Southern Command Headquarters, where she was repeatedly tortured and sexually abused by her abductors. They tied her hands behind her back, struck her shoulders, punched her at her sides and hit her head with folded paper. Her abductors also undressed her, fondled and made fun of her breasts and touched her private parts. She was left unconscious and for the whole night, the aircon was in full blast.”

Peasant Obito Marquez, meanwhile, was taken by four armed men in civilian clothes on June 21, 2009. He was surfaced only after ten days. Marquez was charged with murder, frustrated murder, robbery, among others.

“His face was drowned in a toilet bowl with feces and he was presented to Palparan,” Cabillas, who visited Marquez at the Custodial Center of Camp Crame several times, said. Former Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. has been named “The Butcher” for the trail of blood he left in areas where he was assigned. “Palparan threatened Marquez that he would be killed next,” Cabillas said.

Psychological torture is also being used on political prisoners. Igleserio Fernia deeply suffered because of psychological torture. He was detained at the compound of the Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (Isafp) inside Camp Aguinaldo and charged with 21 cases.

“He overheard the soldiers saying his daughter had already been buried,” Cabillas said. “The soldiers knew how much he loves his family and they used it to cause him anguish,” Cabillas said.

Fernia was later transferred to Legazpi, Bicol.

Eduardo Serrano was also held incommunicado for ten days. Arrested on May 2, 2004, Serrano was hogtied with masking tape and hauled to the Intelligence Group-Intelligence Service Unit) in Fort Bonifacio.

Prisoners with Illnesses

For humanitarian reasons some of the political detainees ought to be freed immediately because they are sick. Cabillas cited the case of Jovencio Balweg Jr., 59 , who recently underwent a heart bypass operation.

Balweg is an indigenous people’s leader from Abra who was at the forefront of the struggle against the Chico Dam during the Marcos dictatorship, Cabillas said.

The medical cost of his operation amounted to P700,000 ($15,069), the family incurred debts amounting to P400,000 ($8,611). Balweg’s lawyer Rene Cortes appealed for his release for humanitarian reasons, to no avail.

Political prisoner Rolando Pañamugan who is detained at the National Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, suffers from enlargement of the heart, Cabillas said.

Baseless Cases

Cabillas said most of the cases filed against the political prisoners have no merit at all, citing as examples the cases of Randall Echanis, Elizabeth Principe, and the so-called Tagaytay 5 who had been released.

“Their charges are fabricated,” said Cabillas. “The Arroyo government just wanted the political prisoners to languish in jail for as long as possible.”

The rebellion charges against the so-called Batasan 6 or the party-list representatives of Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, and Gabriela in 2006, the Southern Tagalog 72, the Southern Tagalog 27, the Rizal murder charges against Southern Tagalog activists and the murder charges against Pastor Berlin Guerrero were all dismissed for lack of merit.

Political prisoner Donald Navarro has been detained at San Fernando, Pampanga for almost six years now. Charged with illegal possession of firearms, he could not post bail amounting to P80,000 ($1,722).

Trumped-up Charges for Counterinsurgency

Cabillas deemed that the filing of trumped-up charges against activists and critics is part of the Arroyo government’s counterinsurgency program Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL).

Although the number of cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances is decreasing due to international and local protests, Cabillas noted that the filing of criminal cases against activists is intensifying. Political prisoners are being tagged as NPA’s and communist-“terrorist,” said Cabillas.

Selda’s Fr. Diony Cabillas(Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea /

Even with the abolition of the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG), cases against activists continue. Formed in 2006 through Executive Order (EO) No. 493, the IALAG aimed to address specific offenses against national security such as rebellion, sedition and related actions. It was composed of representatives from the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA), Department of Justice (DOJ), Department National Defense (DND), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine National Police (PNP) and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

On May 15, 2009, the IALAG was abolished. Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the agency’s dismantling was their response to the recommendation of Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings. In his follow-up report to the United Nations Human Rights Council dated April 29, 2009, Alston said the central purpose of IALAG remains to prosecute and punish members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its purported front groups as enemies of the state, many of whom will not be reachable by legal processes.

But “The abolition of IALAG has had no effect,” Cabillas said. The AFP, PNP, DND continue to connive with the DOJ in arresting and detaining activists by filing criminal cases against them, thus the existence of political prisoners.

Made last June 13 2010