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Behind the walls of repression: Political prisoners under the fascist state

By James Masangya

On Saturdays, Evelyn Legaspi would commute more or less three hours from General Trias, Cavite to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, to visit her husband Edisel, a political prisoner who is currently detained for alleged illegal possession of explosives. Most if not all political prisoners across the country are tried for the same criminal offense which includes but is not limited to Edisel’s case .

Legaspi, 60, shared that she was also imprisoned here, particularly in Taguig City Jail Female Dorm. According to her, she was nabbed by operatives of the police and army with a warrant of arrest containing the name of a certain Annabelle Bueno, an alleged high-ranking New People’s Army leader with charges of multiple murder, on February 9, 2012. She was in jail for almost five years, only for her case to be dismissed in December 2016. She insisted that the nature of her arrest was purely political as she was the regional chair of Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap-Southern Tagalog (KADAMAY-ST) at that time.

I joined her in visiting Edisel and other political prisoners one Saturday, only for her to be barred from entering because the amount of money she held exceeded what was allowed under jail rules. Although she was frustrated, since this wasn’t an issue before, Evelyn was no longer surprised by the arbitrary policy of the authorities when it comes to visiting inmates, especially political prisoners. 

She recalled that in December 2019, families and friends of specific political prisoners were denied entry without a clear explanation. The gatekeepers only showed them that the request letter by Hustisya, a human rights organization, for “Paskuhan”, a get-together of political prisoners’ families, was denied. 

Fortunately, I was still able to enter, accompanied by her daughter, Cel. As I entered Special Care Intensive Area 1 (SICA-1), the facility where most of the male political prisoners are currently held, I was greeted with a smile by a tall figure. Edisel Legaspi, 61, used to study Agricultural Engineering in the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) but is now into farming. He is a member of Samalenyo Organiko, an organization of organic farmers in Samal, Bataan. Edisel is one of the five individuals who were arrested in Sta. Cruz town in Laguna on October 15, 2018 for allegedly possessing illegal firearms and explosives. According to Edisel, he was with Adelberto Silva, a known National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant, as he was assisting in conducting consultations for the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) across towns in Southern Tagalog. 

He recounted that-during that day, combined elements of the police and army suddenly set-up a checkpoint in Barangay Pagsawitan, when in fact there was none before. They were eventually held at gunpoint, and were instructed to lay face-down on the road, threatened to be shot if they moved or made noise. Witnesses who took photos were also forced to delete them. He claimed that the police were able to fabricate and plant evidence in their car and produce a witness. According to the police report, two caliber .45 pistols, four grenades, and one improvised explosive device were recovered from them. 

There is already a court order to release Edisel, and two others of the Sta. Cruz 5, released October 16, 2019. Their case of illegal possession of firearms, after all, was already dismissed. However, the prosecutor amended the order, in line with the investigation conducted by the Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG), which established the result of their chemical evaluation, the strength and possible impact of the explosives found. Because of this, the prosecutor recommended the court that the five of them should not be able to post bail for illegal possession of explosives.   

Karapatan, a human rights advocacy group, earlier slammed the arrest of Adelberto Silva and his four companions as “gross violation of the previously signed agreement, particularly the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).” The arrest of the Sta. Cruz 5 breached provisions under JASIG, specifically the free and unhindered passage, and immunity from harassment, search, arrest, prosecution, and detention of individuals involved in the peace process. Under CARHRIHL, the government is not allowed to file criminal charges to individuals in relation to their political offenses.  They cited this incident as a sign that the Duterte Administration has no intention of reviving peace talks between GRP and NDFP.

Dissent amid state repression

While sitting in the corridors of the building, we were suddenly joined by Vicente “Vic” Ladlad, 70, an NDFP consultant who actively participated as part of the negotiating panel in the GRP-NDFP peace talks until its termination in November 2017. Vic is a graduate of UPLB, with a degree in Agricultural Economics and was once the student chair of the College of Agriculture Student Council. He was arrested on November 8, 2018, along with other NDF consultants, with trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

As we talked, he invited me to tour their cell.  Ladlad teased, “Katulad siya sa mga nakikita mo sa movies, parang American Jail.” True enough, their cell has its own comfort room, well-lit and well ventilated, and surprisingly has only four occupants. This is far-fetched from the typical provincial and city jails, and penitentiaries across the country with appalling conditions and not even conducive to hold people. He claimed that theirs was a “showcase jail”; even though it is placed under maximum security, these are jails that adhere to international standards and could be exhibited to foreigners and human rights watchdogs. 

As we figured over our lunch, which Vic cooked himself, we talked about the history and issues of state repression over dissenters and reformists in the Philippines. He also provided a situationer regarding the threats being faced by political prisoners, specifically their health condition and the plan of dispersing them to different provincial and city jails in observance of Executive Order No. 70 (EO 70)

Even during the Spanish period, political offenders were segregated from non-political prisoners, Vic said. Historically, these supposed political prisoners were rounded-up and incarcerated in Fort Pilar in Zamboanga. In contemporary times, specifically during Marcos Martial Law, outspoken critics of the Marcos regime were also contained in specific areas and jails. The likes of Ninoy Aquino, the former senator Jose  Diokno, and suspected communists were isolated apart from those who committed criminal acts. But towards the end of Martial Law and the Marcos regime, combatants and dissidents were charged with common crimes. 

Ladlad made a clear distinction between political and non-political prisoners since over time, political offenders are criminalized. According to him, political prisoners nowadays are no longer recognized as people who took part in opposing the current government either as combatants and critics, or the ones who merely expressed their political beliefs. Unlike today, they are charged with theft, murder and other crimes that are committed for the purpose of serving themselves. Vic reiterated, however, that the political prisoners are jailed for no reason aside from advancing their political cause, which is selfless in nature.  

Under the Hernandez Doctrine, “rebellion cannot be complexed with other crimes, such as murder and arson, because rebellion in itself would subsume the said crimes. The said crimes are inherent and concomitant when rebellion is taking place.” Ever since Republic Act 1700or Anti-Subversion Law of 1957 was amended and eventually repealed, the running mechanism of the government is to charge and convict political opponents with common crimes. If a certain individual or party were indeed combatants, caught in legitimate field operations by the state, they should be charged with insurrection or rebellion, or in other cases, inciting sedition under the Revised Penal Code.  The effort of the state to criminalize the acts committed by combatants, and to file trumped-up charges of common crimes to political dissidents is in itself a measure in suppressing the opposition by detaining those people indefinitely.

Inside SICA-1 there are currently 40 political prisoners, with 25 of them coming from Southern Tagalog. Meanwhile in Taguig City Jail Female Dorm, there are six of them. When asked why there are plenty of political prisoners coming from Southern Tagalog in SICA-1, Ladlad revealed they were originally incarcerated in provincial and city jails, in towns where they were caught. “The New People’s Army (NPA) has a history of raiding these jails in Southern Tagalog to free these prisoners, and the jail wardens are still afraid of containing them.  That’s why they are usually sent to Camp Bagong Diwa, in places with maximum security,” he added. 

Vic said that there is no problem with the current scheme of collecting political prisoners within the same section of the building. In fact, this is advantageous for them. He claimed that with this set-up, they are able to shield themselves from gangs inside the jail. “Natutulungan namin ang isa’t isa, kumbaga self-help. Yung mga hindi nadadalaw ng kanilang pamilya, naabutan namin ng suporta sa tulong ng KAPATID,” he added. 

Unfortunately, they are still far from being immune to threats, such as their health condition and the plan of the authorities to reshuffle them. 

Vic said that two of their fellow political prisoners died while inside the jail, due to neglect and lack of discretion of officers from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP).  One died because of a heart attack, while the other because of pneumonia. The officers were not able to send them to the hospital immediately because they were still waiting for the court order. According to him, there is a court order to return them back to the jails, in towns wherein they were initially caught. In virtue of EO 70, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza has recommended the BJMP to reshuffle them, because they are suspected of conspiring to overthrow the government. But inside the memorandum shown to them, BJMP cited reasons such as ease of transport during hearings, Ladlad said. BJMP earlier denied the allegations and has promised to discontinue the plan of transferring them. 

Despite these pronouncements, 12 of them still have pending orders to be sent to other jails, including the Sta. Cruz 5, according to Ladlad. Four were already transferred; one in Butuan City Jail, one in Gumaca District Jail, and two others in Sta. Cruz Laguna Provincial Jail. The two were eventually returned to SICA-1, for the warden denied them for security reasons.

KAPATID, an organization of families and friends of political prisoners, earlier debunked the reasons of BJMP, since most of the cases of political prisoners were already transferred in Taguig courts. They also argued that the detention of political prisoners within the same facility is in observance of the UN Standard Minimum Treatment of Prisoners, popularly known as the Mandela Rules. 

The plan to dismantle the current scheme of political prisoners inside the jail has ramifications, which includes denying them access to health care they deserve, and the psychological unrest of separating and barring them from communicating with their family. This move is also seen as subjecting them to isolation by sending them to remote prisons. 

Enduring struggle

Although political prisoners are still far from achieving justice and release, efforts made by themselves and their families and friends, helped them in securing their rights as persons deprived of liberty. 

For KAPATID, since their reestablishment in June 2019, there has been a couple of gains in issues it faced. Aside from their major success in stopping the BJMP in dispersing political prisoners through dialogues with BJMP senior officials and court motions, they were also able to assert the UN Bangkok Rules and UN Mandela Rules for strip and body cavity search for prisoners as well as visiting females and children. They also conducted investigations on the harassment of political prisoners in Manila City Jail. They also forced to end the lockdown in National Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa and restore the visiting rights for the detainees, especially the political prisoners. 

Currently, with the aid of Bayan Muna and Makabayan bloc representatives and other concerned organizations, they were able to file House Bill No. 566 in Congress, urging for a joint investigation by the House of Representatives and Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on the alarming increase in political prisoners in the country. It also called for the investigation on the repressive measures against political prisoners citing the earlier plan of BJMP to transfer them into local jails.

Amid COVID-19 scare, KAPATID calls the government for ‘Iran Solution’- releasing en masse thousands of prisoners, citing the overcrowded jails may only worsen the transmission of disease. Along with this, they also sought the administration to declare a state of calamity in prisons to heighten the capability and preparedness of BJMP in responding to the public health crisis. 

Trumped up charges 

After finishing our lunch, Vic Ladlad suddenly recounted an incident wherein he was tried in 2006 for mass murder in Inopacan town in Leyte in 1985. How could it happen, when in fact he was in jail in Camp Nakar in Quezon Province from 1983 to 1986? The prosecution failed to establish a clear link to him and this incident because of an earlier case of mass murder. A certain Glecerio Roluna, being used by the government as their witness, was previously charged for being involved in a previous case of mass murder in Baybay town in Leyte. He recycled his own testimonies of allegedly uncovering the sites of the mass graves. The names of the victims supposedly found in Inopacan were the same in Baybay. For Ladlad, it was a desperate move for the prosecuting panel to charge him with multiple murder. His legal counsel and other attorneys even called this case the “traveling skeleton.”  

Dioniso Almonte, 62, is a peasant organizer under Pagkakaisa at Uganayan ng mga Magbububkid sa Laguna (PUMALAG). He is currently being tried for 7 trumped-up cases, currently the most among the political prisoners. Dioniso  revealed that he and his wife were arrested by the police in Valenzuela City while they were in a hospital for a check-up, for kidnapping with murder for a certain incident in Mauban town in Quezon. He added that six other random individuals coming from Southern Tagalog, which he didn’t even recognize, were on the warrant of arrest. 

Meanwhile, Ferdinand Castillo, 60, an NDFP consultant and peasant and workers welfare advocate, is the recognized “mayor” of the political prisoners. He told me they are just following the tradition of assigning a title to the person as the head of the group, but the primary function of the “mayor” is to be the point person for the authorities. 

“Democratic pa rin ang palakad naming ng mga kapwa kong political prisoners dito, lahat ng decision ay pinag-uusapan naming lahat dito as a group,” he added. He was arrested for charges of murder and illegal possession of firearms for a supposed ambush in Lopez, Quezon.

According to the records of human rights group Karapatan, as of November 2019 there are 629 political prisoners in the country. 382 of these individuals were arrested under the Duterte administration. The majority of them are charged with trumped-up common and non-bailable crimes.

While our judicial system in place is being weaponized to curtail class struggle, we should not be impeded in our duty to assert our rights, especially those who are marginalized. In our effort to completely overhaul the fabric of the society, we, in our conscientious intention, cannot rely on the laws borne out of the system which has bound many of us in chains for centuries. [P]

Photo lifted from KAPATID- families and friends of political prisoners

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