Cenon Sambola, elderly political prisoner jailed in place of his son

Cenon Sambola, a 60-year old elderly and sickly detainee, has been a political prisoner for more than a year now, as a replacement for his son, Jerson. You read it right – as a replacement. 

Jerson, a farmer, was imprisoned in December 2011 on the basis of three trumped-up court cases, and was released in October 2012, after posting bail.Jerson's father, Cenon, was arrested by the police and military in Brgy. Pasay Del Gallego, Camarines Sur, soon after Jerson was failed to appear during court hearings because of his work in a car factory in Manila. When Jerson learned of his father’s arrest, he kept himself scarce, afraid that he will be arrested once again. 

Since the 1980’s, Cenon and his family have experienced harassment and threats. Cenon was a leader of the Kalipunan ng mga Uring Tagapagsaka (KARIT), an organization of peasants in Quezon province. He actively participated in fact-finding missions and mass actions to seek redress on gross human rights violations against fellow peasants in Quezon.

In the course of intensified military and police counter-insurgency operations, Cenon and his fellow leaders and members of KARIT were subjected to intense harassment and surveillance and worse, many of them were killed. 

Together with his family and, at times, separated from his family, Cenon had to keep moving from one place to another. His family became “fair targets” for the military, paramilitary and police operatives.

Cenon's children, including Jerson, had to stop going to school. The family's source of livelihood became very unstable, and Cenon had to find some income through different ancillary tasks, like chain-sawing of disposable trees for lumber and coal-making to provide for his family. 

From the Sambola's residence in Gumaca, Quezon, where Cenon and his family experienced surveillance and harassment, the family moved to his wife's hometown in Tanay, Rizal. In 2006, because of Cenon's poor health conditions (acute tuberculosis and hypertension), the family had to transfer again to Brgy. Pasay, Del Gallego, Camarines Sur. Cenon actively involved himself in community activities, and even served as presiding "judge" in the barangay "court".

In the early evening of January 28, 2015, while Cenon was resting in his residence, along with two daughters and a grandchild, six policemen in plainclothes suddenly barged into the house and arrested Cenon. They also asked the whereabouts of Cenon's wife, as they also wanted to arrest her. The police said they had a warrant for the arrest, but they did not present it.

Cenon’s relatives and neighbors tried to prevent the arresting team from bringing Cenon with them. They insisted that Cenon is innocent, and that, in fact, he has long been an active barangay official there. But the police ignored them, and brusquely brought Cenon with them.

He was taken to Camp Nakar, headquarters of the AFP Southern Luzon Command, where he was interrogated for another five hours on the whereabouts of his son, Jerson. They alleged that Jerson, who was working in a car factory in Manila, rejoined the New People’s Army (NPA) after his release. Cenon was punched repeatedly, after he denied the allegations of his interrogators. Several days later, Cenon was brought to Gumaca District Jail in Quezon, where he suffered inhuman conditions for one year. 

The jail was overcrowded. Each detention cell, measuring 10 feet by 12 feet, housed about 70 inmates. Each detainee had only one and a half square foot of space. For 24 hours a day, inmates were unable stretch their bodies and legs, and would only squat side-by-side on the floor, whether awake or asleep. The bathroom in each cell is so small and the water supply so little, so that it would take hours of waiting to use the toilet and take a bath. Three persons have to simultaneously bath with just a single faucet. 

In summer, many of the inmates fainted due to intense heat, lack of air-in-circulation, and dehydration. The whole time he was detained in Gumaca, Cenon suffered hypertension, frequent colds, fever, skin problems and constant pains at his back and legs. Contagious ailments such as skin rashes, boils, sore eyes and respiratory diseases abound among the inmates. Tuberculosis became the primary cause of death in the said jail.

Sunning rights were restricted to once a week and for only 30 minutes at a time, thus further weakening the detainees' immune system against health problems.

The cost of food rations for the detainees was way less than a third of the state's supposed P50-per-day food budget per inmate. Breakfast was either bland champorado (cocoa-flavored porridge) or lugaw (rice porridge, artificially flavored with monosodium glutamate) mixed with recooked left-over rice (bahaw). Rice rations for lunch and supper were also often either overcooked or stale. Viands for lunch and supper always consisted of small servings of sayote (chayote), upo (bottle gourd) or papaya, drowned in very bland soup. 

Inmates were charged for their needs and requests. A detainee is charged P15 per cooking of rice, P10 per heating of a cup of ready-to-eat noodles, and P10 per boiling of a bottle or even just a cup of water. VIPs ("Very Important Prisoners"), ie., very rich inmates were charged P200 per month for bed space. Inmates are also charged P10 for "calling" -- ie., when they are "called" to be able to meet their visitors. Detainees were also only allowed to keep three t-shirts and pants. Shoes and denim pants were prohibited inside jail.

There were many times when his fellow prisoners shared their problems with Cenon and sought his advise. Thus, he earned the respect of fellow inmates.

After a year at the Gumaca District Jail, Cenon was transferred to the Special Intensive Care Area 1 (SICA 1) of the Metro Manila District Jail in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City -- the same detention center where his son, Jerson, was imprisoned four years ago.

Cenon is currently facing a trumped up murder charge before the Gumaca Regional Trial Court Branch 63, where hearings proceed at a snail’s pace  However, he still hopes that he will eventually be proven innocent of the charges.

Cenon and his fellow political prisoners continue their quest for justice, human rights and freedom even behind bars, and hope to freely be able to again take part in the people's struggles outside of prison.#

(written by Joseph Cuevas, political detainee at SICA 1, August 5, 2016)