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KAPATID: Continuing the Struggle to Free all Political Prisoners
Volume 20 Number 4
Friday, 06 November 2009 13:51

by Carlo Cleofe

The Kapisanan para sa Pagpapalaya ng mga Bilanggong Pulitikal sa Pilipinas (KAPATID) was formed in 1978 during the martial law years by concerned relatives and individuals as a response to the widespread political imprisonment and detention of anti-Marcos forces.

From 1978 to 1997 KAPATID was instrumental in the formation of socio-economic projects in detention centers, and in publicizing individual cases of political detainees. Because of KAPATID’s campaign government created the Office of the Presidential Adviser to the Peace Process (OPAPP) and the Presidential Committee on Bail, Recognizance and Pardon (PCBReP) that focuses mainly on inmates who were arrested due to their political affiliation and belief.

However in spite of these government programs, the fact remains that there are still 233 political prisoners in the country. Most of them have already been recommended for release by both the OPAPP and the PCBReP, but due to policy shifts of government in relation to the problems of insurgency these recommendations were disregarded by Malacanang.

Given this situation, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) initiated a series of meetings with the relatives of political prisoners with the aim of once again reactivating KAPATID and its membership so as to campaign on the issue of political detention and arrest.

Last September 20, 2006 around 50 families, relatives, and friends of political prisoners gathered at the conference hall of the Quezon Memorial Circle to re-establish KAPATID.

The General Assembly (GA), which is the first after 15 years, discussed the imperative to re-establish an organization that would assist the needs of political prisoners and their families, and campaign for their release. The participants of the GA also ratified KAPATID’s constitution and General Program of Action, and elected an eleven-member council that would in turn elect the executive committee of the organization.

The keynote speaker of the assembly was former KAPATID chairperson Nymia Simbulan of the Philippine Human Rights Research and Information Center (PhilRights). Madam Simbulan shared the experiences of KAPATID under her leadership, and she also talked about the GA’s theme, which is “Muling Patatagin at Palakasin ang Kasapian ng mga Kamag-Anak at Kaibigan ng mga Bilanggong Pulitikal Upang Harapin ang Hamon ng Panahon”.

In her speech, Dr. Simbulan stressed that under the present government political repression and human rights violations have escalated hence the need to once again form organizations, such as KAPATID that would work towards safeguarding, and protecting basic rights.

This task is clearly elaborated in the objectives set by KAPATID’s constitution that was adapted by the GA. These objectives are the following:

1. To make the public aware about the existence of political prisoners, and the truth that even though we are under a democratic system of government there are still people who are being arrested and jailed due to their political beliefs or ideology.
2. To work for the release of political prisoners and detainees and help them re-integrate as productive members of society.
3. To help political prisoners and their families’ access network organizations that would support projects that would ensure their general welfare.
4. To ensure that the basic human rights and specific legal rights of political prisoners and detainees are respected and protected.

Other speakers during the GA who shared their views regarding the current human rights situation in the country and the need to organize civil society for the defense of human rights were TFDP Luzon Island Coordinator Emmanuel Amistad, and Partido ng Manggagawa Partylist Representative Renato “Ka Rene” Magtubo.


THE CONTINUED PHENOMENON OF POLITICAL IMPRISONMENT

The existence of political prisoners is incompatible in a democracy that constitutionaly guarantees and upholds civil rights and the right not to be imprisoned solely on the basis of political beliefs. And yet the fact remains that certain individuals are being singled out by the state by virtue of their involvement in a movement that seeks political and social change.

A political prisoner is someone held in prison or otherwise detained, perhaps under house arrest, because their ideas or image are deemed by a government to either challenge or threaten the authority of the state. In many cases, they are imprisoned with no legal veneer directly through extrajudicial processes.2

However, it also happens that political prisoners are arrested and tried with a veneer of legality, where false criminal charges , manufactured evidence, and unfair trials are used to disguise the fact that an individual is a political prisoner. This is common in situations which may otherwise be decried nationally and internationally as a human rights violation and suppression of a political dissident. A political prisoner can also be someone that has been denied bail unfairly, denied parole when it would reasonably have been given to a prisoner charged with a comparable crime, or special powers may be invoked by the judiciary.3

This definition clearly states certain aspects that differentiate political imprisonment with the punishment meted out against ordinary criminals. It is interesting to note that the difference between a common criminal and a political prisoner lies not on the nature of the charges filed against him but on the motive or reason why he is being imprisoned.

A political prisoner can be charged with common crimes like murder, or robbery so as to obscure the fact that the state wants him to be jailed because his or her ideas are deemed to be a threat to the authority or power of the existing government.

Such is the case of Juanito Itaas, one of the long held political prisoners in the country today. Itaas was a peasant organizer in Davao during the 1980's. He was actively involved in educating peasants on their rights and mobilizing them around agrarian issues like the tenancy system and land reform. His activities among the peasants did not go unnoticed; the military branded him as a communist agitator, a subversive element, and therefore an enemy of the State.

On August 29, 1989 military men wearing civilian clothes forcibly abducted Itaas and brought him to a safe house where he was tortured and held incommunicado for days. The reason for his abduction became clear only after his abductors forced him to sign a confession stating that he killed Col. James Rowe.

Col. Rowe was a member of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the head of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG). His main role in the Philippines was to advise the government on how to deal with the communist insurgency inevitably making him a military target of the New People's Army (NPA). In April 1989, Col. Rowe was ambushed by the NPA while he was on his way to his office in Quezon City.

To stop the daily physical torture he was being subjected to while under custody, Itaas signed a confession admitting that he was the one who killed Col. Rowe. Based on this the court sentenced Itaas to life imprisonment at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) where up to today he is still serving sentence for a crime he did not commit.

Like Itaas, most of the political prisoners who are in jail were sent there because they were denied due process of the law, or even if they were subjected to judicial processes the charges filed against them were false and lacked substantial evidence to prove their guilt.

It is also sad to note that the chance of a pardon or parole for most of the political prisoners are slim given the fact that the judicial system in the country is slow and bureaucratic and that certain provisions contained in the guidelines of the Board of Pardon and Parole (BPP) severely limits their chances to avail it.


THE STIGMA AND THE SOCIAL COST OF IMPRISONMENT

Our prison system is punitive rather than restorative. Its main objective is to punish an individual by bringing the whole weight of the state against the offender. In most cases people who are in prison are seen as individuals who are a menace to society. Hence anyone who has been sentenced to prison runs the risk of being stigmatized as troublemakers who deserves their punishment.

By charging political prisoners with criminal offences the state discredits and delegitimizes their principles and ideas. Instead of being seeing as defenders of rights or as freedom fighters government seeks to propagate the idea that political prisoners are mere criminals who have violated the law. More than just a legal act, the filing of criminal charges serves as a political propaganda to weaken the support of the people to the legitimate aims of the progressive movement.

Criminalizing political offences stigmatizes not only the political prisoners but also their families who unfortunately bear the brunt of facing the misconceptions of their immediate community. Aside from the stigma, political imprisonment also dislocates the family both emotionally and economically.

“Noong nakulong ang asawa ko tatlong taon pa lang ang anak ko. Ngayon 17 anyos na siya; labing apat na taon na niyang di nakakapiling ang kanyang tatay.” This is according to Rose Mercader the wife of political prisoner Anacleto Mercader who is now serving time at the NBP.

To make ends meet Rose has been taking on odd jobs like housekeeping, and laundry work. She also has a small sari-sari store to augment the family income. “Mahirap talaga ang wala ang iyong asawa dahil wala kang katuwang sa paghahanapbuhay. Lalo pa ngayon na college na ang anak namin.” Rose laments.

Like Rose most of the wives of political prisoners are left with the multiple burden of earning a living, caring for the children, and working for their husband’s release. Because one or both their parents are under detention, children of political prisoners are denied the chance to feel the warmth and nurturing care of a family. They also grow up without the benefit of a role model that would guide them during their formative years.

The pain and loneliness that imprisonment brings to the families and relatives of political prisoners is the social cost of political repression. In this sense a government that jails people because for their political beliefs not only violates the constitutional right to freedom of belief and expression but it also deprives the children of political prisoners the right not to be separated from their parents and to be a part of a family.

The shared circumstances, burdens, and trials that families of political prisoners are continually facing have led them to seek each other for support and solidarity. The formation of KAPATID is but an organizational expression of this solidarity.

It is a solidarity born out of the joys and sufferings, and the despair and hope of the families, relatives and friends of political prisoners who in their unity have learned that freedom is something that one should be willing to fight for.
Carlo V. Cleofe is the Information/Advocacy and Campaign Staff of TFDP

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