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PHILIPPINES: Political Prisoners: The Forgotten Heroes

Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP)

For over a century, the State’s practice of putting real or suspected political dissenters in jail has been around in the Philippines. Even before the Spanish landed in our archipelago, up to the period of American colonialism, the Japanese occupation and the present-day republic, the suppression of the right to dissent has been pronounced.

But was it meant to be so?

Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Enrique M. Fernando acknowledges in his book, The Bill of Rights, that the right to dissent is an integral component of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and of expression. It encompasses the right to express non-conventional, radical or progressive ideas as well as the right to differ, to oppose, to criticise, to protest or to deviate from existing socio-political norms.

Yet, dissent has been equated with disloyalty, subversion, a crime against the State and public order.

Filipino freedom fighters like Rizal, Mabini and Sakay were hounded by the colonial rulers until their death while the militant peasant and labor movements were declared illegal during the Commonwealth period. Guerillas and their sympathisers were detained, tortured and murdered during the Japanese occupation while the likes of poet laureate and labour leader Amado V. Hernandez were arrested and detained in the 1950s and the following decades.

It was during the time of the Marcos regime that the phenomenon of political detention earned serious public attention. Martial law was in place at that time which turned the country into a virtual prison camp. Some 70,000 people are believed to have been thrown into jails, tortured, vanished without a trace ("disappeared") or killed ("salvaged") in 14 years since the strongman, Marcos, imposed military rule in 1972.

In 1986, the dictatorship was overthrown through the so-called people power uprising. President Corazon C. Aquino who thereafter rose into power ordered the release of 458 political prisoners, and most of them were suspected top leaders of the underground communist party, civil libertarians and other anti-Marcos activists.

Then, the public thought that a democratic climate was at hand. President Aquino initiated a peace talk with the rebel National Democratic Front (NDF) for a possible political settlement of the armed conflict hurting the country. But the massacre of peasant marchers asking for land reform in Malacanang Presidential Palace in 1987 aborted the peace dialogue. It also signalled the resumption of armed hostilities between the NDF and the government.

Aquino, in a speech before the graduates of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), unsheathed the so-called "sword of war" and declared a "total war" against government opposition. Not long after, a wave of terror followed. Militant trade unions, peasant organisations, youth associations and other citizens’ formations critical to the government were branded as "communist fronts." Once labelled, members of these groups were marked for harassment, arrest and even assassination by government military and paramilitary groups.

The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) has counted some 20,523 individuals who were netted by the crackdown on government critics during the six-year term of President Aquino. Many of those arrested have been already freed. But not a few of them remain in jail.

When retired General Fidel V. Ramos assumed the presidency in 1992 by a minority vote, there were still 633 political prisoners languishing in prison. His years in office saw the diminishing number of political prisoners, but this did not remove the pall of gloom that shrouds the human rights climate. From 1992 up to 1996 there were 2,459 individuals arrested for political reasons.

Like his predecessor Aquino, Ramos also offered a peace overture with the armed opposition groups hoping to restore peace and order which is a cornerstone for the government’s development plan. The major components of his peace package are the following:

1. The repeal of R.A.1700 (Anti-Subversion Act), thus making membership to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and other similar organisations legal;

2. The creation of the National Unification Commission (now called Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process or OPAPP) tasked to formulate a comprehensive peace programme;

3. The holding of peace talks with all insurgent groups, such as the NDF, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM-SFP-YOU) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF); and

4. The issuance of the "Presidential Guidelines for the Grant of Bail, Release or Pardon of Persons Detained or Convicted of Crimes Against National Security, Public Order and Violation of the Articles of War."

Through the Presidential Guidelines and the government’s amnesty programme, Ramos sought the release of a number of political prisoners. The government called it a "confidence-building" measure, a clever move to show that President Ramos is sincere in upholding human rights.

Yet, as of September 1996, 161 political detainees are still drawing the length of days in 47 detention centres nationwide.

But what is more ironic is that the government denies that these prisoners are political dissenters. After having charged all of the prisoners with common felonies (i.e. illegal possession of firearms), the government now treats them as ordinary criminals.

In a 1992, the Medical Action Group (MAG), a non-governmental organisation promoting health and human rights, came out with a study on the profiles of political prisoners under the Ramos administration. Their findings showed that a political prisoner is usually a young male adult, Roman Catholic and with very minimal formal education. Three-fourths of post Marcos/Aquino political prisoners hail from the rural areas employed either as peasants or farm workers and working for structural reforms prior to their arrest. Suspicion of being New People’s Army (NPA) members or supporters of insurgent groups are the usual grounds for their arrest.

During the deliberations of the Presidential Committee on Political Prisoners, they described a political prisoner to be "a person who has been arrested or detained by reason of the commission of an act penalised by existing laws as political crime, or by reason of any other act which is complexed with, or connected to such crimes."

Thus, a charge of illegal possession of firearms against a suspected NPA member should not be inferred as plain criminal offence unrelated to his or her rebel activities. After all, to take up arms against an oppressive government would logically require firearms.

In addition, the TFDP, based on its years of dealing with the issue of political detention, has determined the following elements that make a detainee a political prisoner:

1. When the individual was arrested and imprisoned on the occasion or as a consequence of cause-oriented political mass actions such as pickets, strikes, rallies, etc;

2. When the detainee was picked up by authorities for his or her membership to cause-oriented groups;

3. When the prisoner was taken by authorities as a result of counter-insurgency operations, and when the perpetrators claim that the arrest and detention was a product of counter-insurgency operations; and

4. When the prisoner is a victim of religious and/or ethnic discrimination.

But why does the government insist that there is no such thing as political prisoners in the country, only criminals?

In the paper "A Structural Analysis of the Phenomenon of Political Detention in the Philippines," Maria Socorro I. Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) cites that the government hopes to strip political detainees of public sympathy and support by maintaining that they are criminals. In the process, the government also denies the legitimacy and justness of the grievances of political offenders.

National security, which in reality pertains more to Malacanang’s security, has also been government’s excuse for the continued detention of political prisoners.

TFDP has noted of the deliberate efforts of authorities to "criminalise" the cases against political offenders. In 1989, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of National Defense (DND) created the DND-DOJ Action Committee for the Investigation and Prosecution of Insurgency Cases (JOLAC) and various Regional Legal Action Committees (RELAC) to ensure criminalisation of political offenses and the conviction of political prisoners.

During investigations, political prisoners are usually denied of their right to counsel or forced to accept police-appointed lawyers. Privacy between lawyer and client is commonly not observed, with soldiers sometimes placing themselves within eavesdropping distance. There are also instances when recording devices are placed within consultation areas.

A charge commonly filed against a political prisoner is the violation of Presidential Decree 1866. This edict which dates back to the Marcos regime penalises possession of unlicensed firearms from 17 years in jail to life imprisonment. It is not unusual for the authorities to "plant" the evidence just to implicate the victims. When the suspect is already in jail, the chance of gaining temporary freedom is dim because courts normally disallow the detainee to post bail.

Thus, even if R.A.1700 (Anti-Subversion Act) was repealed, only a handful of political detainees were able to get off the hook because the majority of them were charged not with political offenses but with criminal offenses. Now, the remaining detainees are all facing common felony raps.

Posted on 2001-08-24
Asian Human Rights Commission

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