Women taken, but unshaken

By Amie Perez
For political prisoners Rhea Pareja and Miguela Ocampo Peniero, a new chapter in their struggle for freedom and justice begins, as a new president takes office.
 
“Don’t move, don’t run, or else you’ll die.”

Although shocked, farmer and health worker Miguela Ocampo Peniero, 49, didn’t realize that these threats she heard from behind were for her, from men clad in military uniforms. Her worst fears were confirmed when she turned around and saw that the men carried guns, all pointed at her. First, they took her purse, then they dragged her to their vehicle as onlookers froze in fear. It didn’t matter that she knew and asserted her rights; their lack of a warrant didn’t stop the men from arresting her that day, February 4, 2012.

Seventy thousand pesos in cash, a laptop, a few pieces of fruit, hats, toiletries, pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, a phone, loose change, a mini radio and her liberty of movement—these are some of the things taken away from volunteer teacher Rhea Pareja, 26, on March 15, 2010, on her way to Mulanay, Quezon.

Miguela and Rhea are two of 42 women political prisoners as of June 22, 2016. Like the 519 total political prisoners all over the country, these are citizens arrested and detained for their political beliefs and their conviction to serve the masses, charged with fabricated crimes. 

Along with the promise of “change,” newly-sworn-in President Rodrigo R. Duterte, meanwhile, also promised the release of political prisoners. For once, the new president acknowledges their existence, unlike previous regimes. While this may be good news, political prisoners like Miguela and Rhea, as well as their families and friends, remain vigilant, asking the new president to keep his word. 

Women of service

Aside from both coming from a family of farmers, Miguela and Rhea had one thing in common: passion to serve the people in their humblest ways as a health worker and educator, respectively. Despite her lack of formal education, Miguela served as a volunteer health worker for decades.

“Marami po akong natutunan sa mga seminar at training,” she shared in a letter to Duterte. “Kaya marami rin po akong natulungan dahil sa nakuha kong kaalaman. Hindi po ako nagtanggi ng pasyente… at libre po ang aking serbisyo.”

Meanwhile, Rhea worked as a volunteer in the Adult Literacy Program of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. As an educator, she wanted to reach out to poorest members of society who have been deprived access to their basic right to education. 

The cash taken from Rhea during her arrest was not even hers; it was money meant for education programs. Miguela and Rhea have been working to fill the unmet need for education and health care, which are supposed to be provided by the state. While they sought no material reward for their service, the state “rewarded” them with inhumane treatment, which included mental and physical torture. 

Betrayed by the state

In a letter to President Duterte, Miguela shared her ordeal. Aside from being arrested without a warrant, she was also not allowed to call a lawyer or her family. She was taken to a military camp where she was blindfolded while her hands were bound.

“Pinaupo lang ako sa silya at binantaang tatadtarin ng bala ang katawan ko at ipapalapa sa aso pag nagtangka akong tumakas (They had me sit on a chair and threatened to rain bullets on me and feed me to the dogs if I tried to escape),” Miguela narrated. She remained in the same position until midnight, which hurt her back and aggravated her slipped disc condition, while her head throbbed and menstrual blood seeped through her clothes.

Rhea has been detained for over six years, while Miguela has been in jail for four, both at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City. Rhea was accused being a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), while Miguela was accused of being an NPA commander. Among Rhea’s charges are illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Miguela’s charges, meanwhile, included two counts of rebellion, destructive arson, and murder, all of which have been dismissed. Despite this, she still faces new charges such as frustrated murder, illegal possession of firearms and explosives, and another rebellion case.

“Hindi po naming akalain na makukulong siya,” her parents wrote in a letter to Pres. Duterte. “Wala pong kasalanan ang aming anak at hindi niya magagawa ang mga ibinibintang sa kanya. Lumaki po siya sa amin bilang isang masikap, matulungin at masunuring anak.”

Her parents also expressed their concern for Rhea’s health. She is anemic, and her immune system is compromised, as she contracted tuberculosis in jail. Meanwhile, Miguela still suffers from a slipped disc and hypothyroidism, and was diagnosed with cancer of the parotid gland, which compelled her to get operations while detained. 

Freedom for Rhea and Miguela, freedom for all

Jail should be the last place for people like Miguela and Rhea, who want nothing but to serve their country. But despite their circumstances, these women’s spirits have not been dampened. Along with millions of Filipinos hopeful for genuine change, Miguela and Rhea are asking President Duterte to make good on his promise to free political prisoners. More than getting out of jail, their freedom means that under the new administration, prosecuting people for their political beliefs can start being a thing of the past.

It sends the message that their freedom is everyone’s freedom, too.