A hostage-taking situation is happening right now, with no less than President Duterte playing the role of hostage-taker. His hostages? Some 400 political prisoners.
In response to the mounting call to free all political prisoners, Mr. Duterte has spoken like a true-blue hostage-taker, saying, “Produce to me a signed bilateral ceasefire agreement and I will release them within 48 hours. You can take my word for it.”
In other words, the President wants to force a bilateral ceasefire as ransom for the liberty of the political prisoners. He is using them as bargaining chips, as leverage to force the hand of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) into submission.
By launching this political hostage-taking, Mr. Duterte has shown his narrow comprehension of the longstanding issue of political prisoners, of the essential fact that they should not be in prison in the first place because their only crime is to voice out their criticism of and dissent against the government.
Many of them were rounded up and arrested based on trumped-up and fabricated charges, like youth activists Guiller Cadano and Gerald Salonga. The two have been in detention for two years on the charge of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. They were released just last week, not because of the benevolence of the Duterte administration, but because the courts have dismissed the cases against them, again proving the spurious and baseless character of the charges against them.
The 130 political prisoners that the NDFP is clamoring to be released immediately are sick and elderly. Many have languished in jail for decades, and others have died just as the slow-moving courts were about to dismiss the cases against them. Who can forget the case of NDFP peace consultant Eduardo Serrano, who passed away last January after serving 11 years in prison, and just as the Quezon City Regional Trial Court was about to dismiss the remaining charges against him? More recently, there was 66-year-old peasant organizer Bernabe Ocasla, who died of cardiac arrest last month, after spending seven years in prison. There are many more like them, doing time for crimes they did not commit, and many not receiving satisfactory treatment for their ailments.
Mr. Duterte says his administration has given too many concessions to the communist rebels, clearly referring to the provisional release of 19 NDFP consultants in the past months that facilitated the resumption of the peace talks earlier this year. Yet to consider that move as a concession betrays the fact that the Duterte administration is not sincere in reaffirming the covenants signed by the joint peace panel in past rounds of negotiations, including the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, both of which protect and uphold the rights of citizens against unwarranted and unjustified arrest and detention.
Mr. Duterte should not treat the release of political prisoners as mere concessions but, rather as an essential part of upholding democracy. No democratic nation should ever incarcerate its citizens for being political dissidents and for campaigning for and propagating beliefs contrary to those held by the establishment. For what is the difference of the state from common criminals if it treats political prisoners as hostages that need to be ransomed?
The release of political prisoners is not a precondition to the continuation of the peace negotiations, as some saboteurs of the peace process like to parrot. In fact, their release is an act of justice, an act of restitution for the years lost in jail for crimes they did not commit. Genuine and lasting peace, after all, should be based on justice, and never can justice spring from the ransoming of lives.
Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan Partylist.
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