Speech of CHR Chairperson Leila De Lima for Political Prisoners
On Political Prisoners
Monday, 07 December 2009 10:52

On the Occasion of the Dialogue with Political Prisoners
at the National Bilibid Prison

National Bilibid Prison
Muntinlupa City
12 November 2009


delivered by
Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines

Good morning.

When individuals are restrained of their freedom, special attention must be placed on the protection of their other rights. The atmosphere of confinement, largely hidden from the scrutiny of the outside world, creates a dangerous sphere of secrecy where abuses, if unchecked, may become rampant. When placed in detention facilities or prisons, one may find themselves at the total mercy of the prison officials or even criminal gangs. For this reason, it is especially important that part of the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights is to be able to make visits, announced or unannounced, to detention facilities in order to ensure that the government and prison officials are on their toes, ever vigilant of respecting the rights of detainees.

Of special importance today is the very specific segment of the prison population – political prisoners. To be very frank about the matter, there can be no official classification of “political prisoners.” There is nothing in our cherished democratic way of life that sanctions the suppression of political opinion, even if it is contrary to the established government. Such a classification is obtusely illegal, and rightfully so because our freedom is based precisely on the people's ability to speak freely, to assemble freely and to petition the government freely.

Classically, the term “political prisoner” refers to “someone who is prosecuted or jailed—not for crimes in the ordinary sense of the word, but for harboring or expressing opinions antagonistic to an established order of government”. Another definition says, simplistically, that a “political” prisoner is one “imprisoned for his or her political beliefs or actions.” Yet the term “political prisoner” is so laminated into the radical, leftist  mind that takes on a meaning that is larger than the classical definition.

The danger of expanding the definition beyond harboring or expressing antagonistic opinions is that some segments of society decriminalize outwardly inimical acts on the basis that there is some political motive behind the said act. Illegal acts, such as terrorism, cannot be made integral parts of mere free expression.

Further, an inclusiveness of the definition that encompasses prisoners based on their demographics dilutes the true definition of “political prisoners.” When farmers, laborers, unionist or the marginalized are imprisoned, and denied access to effective means to navigate the justice systems, they may be classified as political prisoners, not for an opinion that they have expressed, but for the demographic they represent, but for the politization of their status.

Let us not deviate from the danger that we must singularly guard against – imprisonment for the free expression of opinion. We do not guard those who support criminality, and we do not confuse politization for political expression.

We've seen the concern over a change from some insidious policy of politically motivated extrajudicial killings to an equally insidious policy of  false prosecution against militant personalities or organizers. While some have expressed relief that the politically outspoken are not killed with impunity, we are still alarmed that the same people can be detained and effectively silenced with a barrage of criminal indictments for acts that are not in any way political, but simply criminal. What is of grave concern is that there are indictments for what appear to be unfounded charges, or suspiciously prepared criminal information timed perfectly with acts of political expression.

A brief glance over the crimes for which some of our prisoner-participants today have been convicted reveal precisely how a trend of false prosecution can result in the impairment of free expression of opinion. Allegations of crimes of murder, illegal firearms and other penal code crimes can be the means by which free expression can be quelled.

This comes as a reminder to the vast sectors that seek reform in the most antagonistic ways – which we must not give the government any grounds by which to imprison those who wish to speak freely. The moment that political advocates can be lawfully suspected of any blatant illegality, the protections of the law cannot prevent convictions where convictions are proper. However, where it is clear that indictments are politically motivated without any factual basis, rest assured that the CHR will be at the forefront of repelling such illegality.

The Commission on Human Rights is adamant that all those who wish to express their opinions, antagonistic or not, imprisoned or not, must be protected in their freedom to do the same. Moreover, where suspicion of criminality attached to free political expression is baseless, we are certainly adamant that government, especially colluding members of the prosecutorial service and the judiciary, be found accountable for such a monstrous circumvention of our Constitutional freedoms.

As for those who are already imprisoned, there is much that you can still do. The finality of your convictions is not the finality of the beliefs you regard. You, the first among many, must be able to espouse free political expression that is lawful, yet tests the limits of governmental tolerance for free expression.

Yes, you and those in solidarity with you, must be able to test the limits of freedom. Our freedom cannot grow in breadth and scope if everyone submits meekly to limits. Indeed, every democracy must be a balance of the Right and the Left, the conservative and the extremist, the fundamentalist and the liberal. And to test the limits of this balance is the only way that we may continue to enjoy a vibrant and living democracy.

But there is a delicate balance that the politically antagonistic must learn – to be leftist without losing sophistication, to be advocates for change without inviting descent into anarchy. We should be able to work the system to our favor, which in turn must be in favor of fundamental freedoms. Revolutions, like negotiations, are even more effective when employed with subtlety, much the opposite of political repression that is blatant and uncouth.

To be a prisoner, and a political prisoner that is not recognized as such by the government that detains you, places you in a very urgent position to be able to work with the system we seek to correct. But as a prisoner, you must be treated like other prisoners as the law dictates. The CHR is here to ensure that there is no implicit recognition that you are treated differently from other prisoners. Buo pa rin ang mga karapatang pantao ng isang bilanggo, mapa isang nabilanggo para sa kanyang mga paniniwalang poltikal o kung anuman.

Everyone has the right to liberty: any detention must be lawful and should be used only as a last resort.

No one shall be subjected   to torture   or  to  cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment     or   punishment.  All persons  deprived  of their liberty in any form whatsoever are to be treated with humanity and  respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. Among other things, this  includes respect for the absolute prohibition on torture, as well as the maintenance   of appropriate conditions of detention in terms  of  access  to  clean  water,  adequate  and  appropriate food, medical goods  and  services and, in cases of longer-term detention, educational and recreational activities.

Detainees continue to enjoy all their human rights (civil, political, economic, social, and cultural) except insofar as those rights are necessarily curtailed by reason of the detention itself.

The  purpose  of  detention  must  be  clear.  In  respect  of detention in the criminal justice system, treatment must be consistent with the aim of reform and social rehabilitation of the detainee.

Those in detention must have the opportunity to complain about violations of their rights, be they on the basis of their detention or the conditions thereof. Where a violation is found, detainees have a right to a remedy and compensation.

And    above all,   individuals in detention must be protected in their rights without  discrimination of any kind as to race, color, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property, disability, birth, especially and more pertinently,  political or  other  opinion.  This  includes  equality  before the law.

As the Christmas season approaches, we are reminded that traditionally, the Chief Executive grants pardons en masse. The prerogative of the President is granted and governed by law, but it cannot be demanded or compelled. To be deserving of presidential pardon, political prisoners must be considered no differently, neither more or less favored than other prisoners. And to be deserving,  one must  certainly work  within  the  parameters of the legal system.

In the end, I cannot make any judgment on the correctness of your court conviction. But this much I can say, if you are indeed bona fide advocates of freedom and human rights through your political advocacies, then we need you to be free at the soonest possible time, and we need those who are free to remain free. We need every Filipino to be on the side of freedom and human rights, political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. And we need all of you to never lose hope in our shared beliefs of full protection and promotion of human rights for everyone.

Engage us openly in this dialogue so that the CHR and all our partner NGOs can gather as much as we can to help guard your rights, and the rights of all those who wish to test the limits of free expression. Our democracy requires us to be firebrand and persistent, unflinching and unwavering in our resolve to preserve the gift of democracy that Filipinos everywhere have a right to enjoy, to revel in and to be blessed with.

Maraming salamat po.

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Last Updated on Monday, 07 December 2009 11:02

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