by Wurmadan A. Anni, Alyssa Kathleen H. Arnaldo, and Raizza Kanille Rabasol
They say justice is blind, that justice is objective and impartial. It does not judge based on skin color, gender, or even on how much money one has. Justice, they say, merely looks at the facts presented in front of it — or at least that is how it is supposed to go. The reality of justice, however, lies in stark contrast to these purported values: justice is not just blind but also deaf to the plight of the people, and it is also being weaponized by those in power for their own selfish ends.
Power, after all, dictates the world: it can determine who is right or wrong, who is innocent or a criminal, what treatment is just and fair, and what is not. Power has been and is still being used to threaten, intimidate, and silence those who are fighting back against these injustices — to suppress people’s rights and squash dissent — and their prevalence in Philippine society cannot be more glaring with the rising number of political prisoners in the country.
Who are political prisoners?
Political prisoners and their situation illustrate in clear strokes what can only be described as a rapidly worsening human rights crisis in the country, especially under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. In a truly democratic country, no one should be imprisoned for their political beliefs — but there is a growing number of individuals who have been illegally or questionably arrested and detained for the practice of their political beliefs and activities. Their experiences embody a dangerous trend of the curtailment of fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
As of August 2020, Karapatan has documented 643 political prisoners throughout the country. 55 of them are already elderly, while 95 of them are suffering from debilitating illnesses. 102 political prisoners in the country are women, five were arrested as minors, and 11 peace consultants of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) are currently behind bars.
The number of political prisoners has surged under Duterte’s administration: 410 political prisoners have been arrested under this regime alone, most of them human rights defenders, environmental and indigenous rights activists, urban poor community organizers, trade unionists, student leaders, and peasant advocates. Despite the legal and non-violent nature of their work and advocacies, they have been tagged maliciously as “communist terrorists” or “terrorist sympathizers” to justify their arrests and imprisonment — often under the basis of trumped-up criminal charges such as arson, murder, and illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Indeed, the plight of political prisoners reveals much of how the law can be weaponized by those in power to silence political dissent and how activists and individuals vocal in their criticisms against the administration are being haphazardly branded as criminals and enemies of the State.
Already wrongfully detained for multiple falsified charges, political prisoners also suffer grave injustice on top of an already grave injustice, from the slow pace of the country’s justice system, denial of legal counsel, physical and psychological torture, and cruel and degrading treatment in prisons. The dehumanizing, unsanitary, and brutal conditions in our highly congested prisons also pose serious health risks for aging, pregnant, or sickly political prisoners, especially amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s jails.
Double standards as injustice
The plight of 23 year-old urban poor community organizer and political organizer Reina Mae Nasino recently turned the public’s attention towards the suffering, unjust treatment, and the shameless double standards faced by political prisoners. Ina, as her family and friends call her, is behind bars for more than a year now after she and two other activists were arrested in a police raid in their office. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives, a non-bailable offence, after the police supposedly recovered guns and bombs from the raid, which Ina and her colleagues claim were planted — stories that have become all too familiar for hundreds of other political prisoners who are currently facing similar charges.
Ina’s dilemma didn’t stop with the trumped-up charges and planted evidence: she would later find out that she was bearing a child — and she had to carry her pregnancy not only behind bars but also amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in jails.
On April 8, Ina joined 21 other political prisoners in filing a petition before the Supreme Court urgently appealing for the temporary humanitarian release of elderly, sick, and pregnant detainees. The petition, however, languished for months as Ina gave birth to her daughter, Baby River, on July 1. Not long after giving birth, Ina was forced to part with Baby River as the courts junked her appeal to allow her to stay with and breastfeed her baby at a hospital or in the prison nursery for a year, and her baby was left in the care of her relatives. In a matter of weeks, Baby River’s health deteriorated, and even her plea to visit Baby River in a hospital was denied. Baby River died without her mother by her side. How devastated Ina must have felt at the time. How heartless can the justice system be to deny a mother temporary release to take care of her newborn child and to be with her child’s dying moments?
It took the tragic death of a three-month-old infant for the courts to finally grant temporary release to Ina: to see her child one last time in a casket. She was granted permission to attend Baby River’s funeral but under heavy guard, and even then, her time was cut short from three days to six hours — and yet, the police and jail guards never even gave her the peace and space to properly mourn this terrible loss as they continued to harass her and her family during Baby River’s wake and funeral.
No one, not even a prisoner, should suffer this kind of dehumanizing, cold-hearted, and brutal treatment — especially a mother who just lost her child, and yet people with power are not treated with the same harshness that Ina and other political prisoners are being subjected to. The double standards of so-called justice could not be even more glaring when political prisoners like Ina are subjected to this kind of cruelty while numerous high-profile detainees are given respite due to health reasons, or to visit ill family members and attend funerals of their deceased loved ones without the heavy security escort that Ina was cruelly burdened with. The most infuriating thing is that most of those people are charged with crimes even more serious than Ina’s, and it is even likely that they are guilty of those charges.
Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. was charged with a more serious crime of graft and plunder, but he was allowed to visit his ailing father and his son in the hospital at least four times. Zaldy Ampatuan, a man guilty of arranging a massacre, was even allowed to attend his daughter’s wedding. Jinggoy Estrada, another person charged with graft and plunder was allowed hospital visits due to health reasons. Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, another person charged with plunder, was also allowed checkups and was even allowed to celebrate her birthday in her home for two whole days. Janet Lim Napoles, another plunderer, was also allowed hospital stay due to health reasons. Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes, also guilty of plunder, was also allowed furlough due to health reasons.
Why is the Philippine justice system treating people charged with graft, plunder, and even murder more humanely than people who merely slapped with trumped-up charges? Power holds sway over the Philippine justice system: it is bent towards the interests of the elite, who are able to buy their way out of punishment and commit more crimes against the people with impunity. The padrino system is still very much embedded in Philippine society that even the justice system is not exempt.
Ina is not even the first political prisoner to suffer inhumane treatment from Philippine courts. NDFP peace consultants like Vicente Ladlad suffered from a lung disease but was obstructed numerous times by the government before his request for a checkup was granted; Frank Fernandez suffered from bouts of unconsciousness and was allowed a hospital stay but he had to remain handcuffed to the bed; Virginia Villamor was allowed a hospital visit due to her depression and hypertension, but was under constant watch of her guards.
Bernabe Ocasla, a man who suffered from multiple heart attacks, died handcuffed to his hospital bed, his prison guards denying his daughter’s request to remove them. Numerous political prisoners suffer and even die due to inhumane treatment — this, despite the fact that many of them are not even found guilty of the crimes they are being accused of. In contrast, people in power who are very much guilty of taking the hard-earned money of the people for their personal benefit and even masterminds of gruesome crimes like murder are treated as if they did not commit any of them: they are treated as innocent until proven guilty, even if they are already guilty. They turn the Philippine justice system into a mockery — into a system of structural injustice.
The call to free all political prisoners
Ina and all other political prisoners are being treated as objects by the government. President Duterte himself made that clear 2016: “Sabihin ko sa inyo, ang alas ko ‘yung nasa kulungan” (“Let me tell you, those people in prison are my ace”). They are not only treated as plain criminals by the government for their mere act of criticizing the system, but they have also become mere bargaining chips.
The government perceives any criticism of their shortcomings as a threat, and more and more people are being thrown behind bars for exercising their democratic right to dissent and resist the government’s blatant acts of injustice. These unjust acts continue in jails, with political prisoners being subjected to dehumanizing and harsh treatment as punishment. Political prisoners are being used as an example for the Filipino people: failure to shut up and simply follow the status quo mean you will be labeled a “communist terrorist” or an “enemy of the State.”
After all, the elites that hold power in the government would not want to heed the call of dissenters for change; they do not wish to let go of a system that advances only their interests. They are afraid of more people speaking up and taking action to correct these injustices that they instead silence those who express dissent and threaten those who already harbor any such thought. Hence, the call to release all political prisoners just seem to bounce off a thick wall made up of the government elites’ selfish interests.
Calling for the release of all political prisoners is a long-existing plea. Their continued detention based on trumped-up charges destroys the sanctity of justice that should be upheld by the Philippine judiciary. This is also evident from the government’s double standards on political prisoners and elites convicted of graver crimes. It’s not only the judiciary trampling over Filipinos’ rights; lawmakers also continue to encroach upon them: draconian legislation like the Anti-Terrorism Act which legalizes the warrantless arrest and detention of so-called terror suspects — which can be and is already being used to harass, threaten, and silence activists — are being passed in Congress despite the loud and broad public opposition faced by the law.
This deformation of justice is maintained by the executive in the image of President Duterte today; under his administration, the number of political prisoners has already doubled — and it will continue to grow with the Anti-Terrorism Act already in effect since July 18, worsening the attacks on the Filipino peoples’ democratic rights and freedoms as well as the already dismal situation of the country’s prison system.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as of March 2020, the Philippines’ prison facilities have overstretched their accommodation to 534% of their capacity, making the country’s jail the most overcrowded and congested prison system in the world. With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, these conditions make it impossible for any sort of physical distancing to be implemented and followed, making it more than likely for communicable diseases to spread like wildfire in jails.
The Philippine government, however, has turned a blind eye to the plight of prisoners, even as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged the decongestion of prisons and that “[n]ow, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views. Solicitor General Jose Calida cruelly asserted that congestion in prison facilities is not among the grounds to release inmates, staunchly keeping the government’s delusional stance that political prisoners, even the old and ailing, pose a graver threat to society than the public health crisis.
The fight for the freedom of political prisoners is an urgent fight for the democratic rights of Filipinos. Now more than ever, the call for the freedom of political prisoners and to end the arrests of activists, dissenters and government critics need to resonate into a deafening roar to topple down the government’s wall of selfish interest that keeps genuine change from being attained by the people.