Many political prisoners are young
The untimely death of Eduardo Serrano trained the spotlight on the plight of political prisoners in the Philippines. He was about to gain his freedom after 11 long years of unjust detention when he died of cardiac arrest last Jan. 8 at the Philippine Heart Center.
He suffered in prison on trumped-up criminal charges intended for another person, charges that were dismissed in court after military officials failed to present credible proof that he was “Rogelio Villanueva,” who they alleged to be an armed rebel.
Serrano, 62, was an agriculturist consulting for farmers’ groups and rural cooperatives and a peasant’s rights activist since martial law.
His case is not an isolated one. There are over 561 political prisoners, including 82 sick and 50 elderly, held in various jails across the country. They are activists, government critics and revolutionaries imprisoned for their political beliefs and causes.
The high-profile ones are aging veterans of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship—Alan Jazmines, Wilma Austria and Benito Tiamzon, among others.
What is less known is the fact that many political detainees are in fact young. According to the Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto or Selda, there are 136 political prisoners aged 18-35, and 75 who were arrested when they were still in their youth.
University of the Philippines students Guiller Cadano and Gerald Salonga, for instance, are being held in the Nueva Ecija Provincial Jail after being illegally arrested by members of the 3rd Infantry Battalion in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija, on Aug. 9, 2014. Both organizers of Anakbayan-Central Luzon, Cadano and Salonga were active in the campaign against the implementation of the Dalton Pass Eastern Alignment Road Project, which is expected to displace peasant communities from their land.
Last Jan. 17, I joined Polytechnic University of the Philippines student writers in a visit to young political prisoners and PUP alumni Jared Morales, Hermogenes Reyes Jr., and Rex Villaflor, who are detained in the Special Intensive Care Area 1 in Camp Bagong Diwa.
We were presenting our IDs at the main gate when guards prevented us from entering the camp. And yet we had our request for the visit approved beforehand by jail officials.
A week later, or on Jan. 24, the same thing happened to UP student leaders: They were barred from visiting political prisoner and UP film student Maricon Montajes in the Batangas Provincial Jail.
The guard on duty was quoted by the UP Philippine Collegian as reiterating the order of new provincial warden David Quimio Jr. that political detainees cannot just receive any visitor because of the special nature of their cases.
Montajes, in detention for five years already, is one of the “Taysan 3” seized by the military on June 3, 2010, in Mabayabas, Taysan, Batangas. She was conducting research for her thesis when abducted along with farmer Romiel Canete and Anakbayan member Ronilo Baes.
Why is the government arbitrarily disallowing visits to political prisoners? It is not only a repression of detainees’ rights but also a refutation of the Aquino administration’s repeated denial of the existence of political prisoners during its term.
The truth is that trumped-up criminal charges are filed against political prisoners in order to conceal the political nature of their imprisonment. Many are tortured, deprived due process, and kept in inhumane conditions that have proven life-threatening to ailing detainees like Eduardo Serrano.
The experience of Andrea Rosal, whose only “crime” may be her being a daughter of the late Communist Party spokesman Roger Rosal, exemplifies the unjust treatment of political prisoners. Pregnant when she was arrested, Andrea was not allowed prenatal care while in detention. She shared a 5×10-meter cell with 30 other inmates in appalling conditions. Her baby, named Diona, died of hypoxemia, or oxygen deficiency in the blood, just two days after birth. Andrea Rosal was later freed due to lack of evidence to back the charges against her.
It was against this backdrop that political prisoners nationwide held a hunger strike last Jan. 12-17. As insufferable as their circumstances may be, they have persevered in defending their rights, defying repression, asserting better jail conditions, and demanding their freedom.
On the other hand, the student leaders and writers who were prevented from visiting the detainees have vowed to organize more visits in the near future and to intensify the call to free all political prisoners.
Whether we agree with their cause or not, one cannot deny that they have sided with and fought alongside the poor in defense of their rights, who have selflessly served marginalized communities, and who have remained firm in their conviction for social change even if this meant going to prison.
Their jailers thought locking them in prison would bury their causes with them, in the words of poet Ernesto Cardenal. But their imprisonment is like seeds that eventually bloom even in the most difficult situation, inspiring new generations to struggle alongside the oppressed.
Karlo Mikhail Mongaya writes for Global Voices, a borderless community of writers and citizen media. He is working on a master’s degree in Araling Pilipino at the University of the Philippines Diliman. On Twitter: @karlomongaya
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