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Lumalaban sa lansangan, lumalaban sa kulungan: The plight of political prisoners

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It started with a simple request from the police. Well into the second day of their nationwide protest to decry the insufficient pandemic response that has left drivers to fend for themselves, transport group Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operator Nationwide (PISTON) was summoned to the Caloocan city hall.

Pagkatapos kausapin ng hepe, ay nagulat na lamang yung anim na diniretso na sila sa Sangandaan precinct,” recounts PISTON National President Mody Floranda, “Hindi na sila pinauwi kasi meron daw kaso.” The six members arrested included the group’s Deputy Secretary General, Ruben Balyon and five other local leaders, who all came to be known as the Piston 6.

(After talking to the chief of police, they were surprised that they were forced to go straight to the Sangandaan precinct. They weren’t allowed to go home because they were facing charges.)

Initially charged with disobeying quarantine regulations, they were promptly thrown into a cramped jail facility containing 153 other detainees. The six would stay there for days, held with unclear charges and deprived of their rights. Two of them would end up contracting COVID-19.

Hanggang ngayon naaalala nila ‘yung kanilang nasaksihan,” says Floranda. For many political groups, the streets have always been the battleground where the fight for equality is waged. Marginalized by the very institutions that swore to protect them, their protests are one of the few avenues where they can topple ivory towers and dismantle the status quo. However, the price to pay for defiance in a repressive regime is heavier than we might realize. 

(Even now, they remember everything they witnessed.)

Battling behind bars

“A political prisoner is also called a prisoner of conscience,” Atty. Josalee Deinla stresses.  Deinla is the current Assistant Secretary General for Legal Services and spokesperson of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL). Ranging from human rights defenders to activists, political prisoners are “imprisoned for holding political beliefs that are contrary to or not tolerated by his or her government,” Deinla expounds.

According to Floranda, politically motivated arrests have consistently haunted activists since the Marcos administration. “Talagang nandyan ang pandarahas sa mga lider,” he explains, “Hindi lang lider ng transport kundi ‘yung lahat ng mga mamamayan na tumutuligsa sa maling policy at patakaran na pinapatupad ng estado.” 

(Violence toward peasant leaders has been ceaseless. Not just transport leaders, but all citizens who dare to oppose the wrongful policies and rules enforced by the state.)

Deinla reveals that prisoners have to endure severe overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation conditions, limited or no access to health care, inadequate ventilation, and lack of clean water. “Philippine jails are notorious for being one of the worst in the world,” she concludes.

Support system

“We have brave clients. They deserve brave lawyers,” Atty. Deinla states. NUPL provides legal services and campaigns for the release of political prisoners. Kapatid, on the other hand, is a legal, financial, and emotional watchdog for political prisoners and their families, advocating for the protection of their rights and welfare. “They (political prisoners) suffer the worst conditions because they should not even be in jail one single day,” explains Kapatid spokesperson Fides Lim.

Due to pandemic conditions, Kapatid also appeals to prison agencies like the Bureau of Corrections and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology for transparency reports on the state of COVID-19 cases in prison facilities and to lift delivery restrictions on food and other basic needs. During these times, Lim assures that they “continue to connect with state agencies to lobby for the release of political prisoners, improve their conditions, stop unjust impositions, and raise other concerns of political prisoners and their families.”

But the nobility of serving as counsel to the persecuted comes with being tagged as “NPA lawyers”, “communist lawyers”, and “communist terrorists”. Lim argues, “These attacks are directed not only to us as individuals, but to the free and independent exercise of the legal profession, which is essential to the people’s access to justice, and, hence, to the maintenance of democracy.”

Not the real enemies

The number of political prisoners has skyrocketed since the start of Duterte’s presidency. Lim argues that “planting of evidence” and “intensified red-tagging” led to about 65 percent of all current political prisoners being arrested under Duterte.

KADAMAY—an organization founded to protect urban poor communities—has faced trumped-up or outright fabricated charges against its members. “Gawa-gawa o talagang pinepeke ‘yung mga kaso para lang, number one, i-discredit ‘yung organization, i-paralyze ‘yung kanyang operations, at…i-cripple ‘yung kanyang organizational structure sa pagdi-disable ng mga members niya,” a representative from the public information desk of their national office maintains.

(These acts aim to discredit the organization, paralyze its operations and cripple its organizational structure by dismantling members.)

Ultimately, those who end up as the most targeted individuals are the beneficiaries of KADAMAY—the poor. As the KADAMAY representative puts it, they have “the most to fight for [but] the least to fight with.”

Reaching their breaking point, these communities start to resist. “Nilalantad mo ang kabulukan [sa sistema],” Floranda refers to such activists. “Kaya ang sagot ng gobyerno supilin ka, hulihin ka, arestuhin, ikulong ka. Hindi man ikulong, patayin ka.”

(You expose the systemic problems. The government retaliates by silencing you, capturing you, arresting you, detaining you. If they don’t detain you, they kill you.)

Weaponizing the law 

Article III, Section 18 of the Bill of Rights states, “No person shall be detained solely by reason of his political beliefs or aspirations.” However, according to Lim, a lot of the cases against political prisoners were based on claims made up by government agencies such as illegal possession of firearms and explosives backed up with “spurious search warrants, planted witnesses and falsified documents.” KADAMAY explains, “Gustong palabasin ng law enforcement na directly related ‘yung mga arrests sa terror-terrorist-tagging nila sa mga aktibista.” 

(The law enforcement wants to alter news stories, claiming that the arrests are directly related to their terror-terrorist-tagging against the activists.)

Those accused of trumped-up charges are not only stripped of their basic rights, but a lot of them also remain behind bars despite flimsy charges. PISTON Vice-President Ramon Rescovilla was arrested on June 7, 2020 for robbery with no concrete evidence. “Inaresto siya at sinukbutan siya ng bag na marami[ng] granada at baril,Floranda discloses. Prior to this, Recovilla was already red-tagged and accused of involvement with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army. 

(He was arrested, and a bag containing grenades and guns was planted on him.)

Do not go gentle

The unjust treatment of the regime against political prisoners places the indigent at odds the most. KADAMAY justifies, “Kung hindi ka papatayin sa gutom, ay papatayin kang literal.”

(If hunger doesn’t kill you, you’ll be literally killed.)

This vulnerability is rooted in the systemic inequalities that have long bound the people. “Si Duterte hindi lang siya simpleng parang magic na parang [kung] nawala siya, magbabago lahat ng bagay. May mahabang listahan ng mga kailangan ng mga tao,” highlights KADAMAY. 

(Things wouldn’t simply just get better if Duterte magically vanishes. There is a long list of what the people need.)

The same deeply rooted issues necessitate that the people make themselves heard, despite the danger dissent carries. “Fear is contagious but courage is more so. There is nothing more powerful than those who are unafraid,” says Lim.

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