A Lawyer and Martial Law: Been There and Back Again

He was vice mayor of Cebu and a human rights lawyer when arrested and detained for three months in 1972. He pursued human rights lawyering even after his release. Thirty four years hence and three kids later, he feels that human rights work is as urgent today under the Macapagal-Arroyo administration as it was before because he said, “Its 1972 once more.”


September 23, 1972 became Black Saturday for Democrito “Mokring” Barcenas, vice mayor of Cebu and human rights (HR) lawyer, and his family when a truckload of Philippine Constabulary (PC) soldiers stood waiting for him in his house in Carcar, Cebu.

“When PP 1081 was proclaimed on a Thursday, I only rushed home for the weekend that Saturday afternoon. And there they were, waiting to take me,” he vividly recalled.

He was then immediately arrested without warrant and taken to Camp Sergio Osmeña in Cebu City, an hour or so ride from Carcar. Upon arrival at the police camp, he found company in the scores of student activists and labor leaders who were also arrested.

He was the only elected public official in Cebu who was arrested, he later found out.

Dedicated human rights lawyer and public servant

Even before Martial Law was declared, the fire of activism has swept throughout the country. Demonstrations and rallies against abuses of the Marcos government and the military were common fare. Common fare, too, were the violence and face-offs between elements of the Philippine Constabulary (PC) and demonstrators.

It was not uncommon then for Mokring as a young lawyer to become defender and counsel for student leaders facing expulsion from universities, demonstrators charged with illegal assembly under the No Permit, No Rally law and labor leaders who were being arrested for staging massive strikes and organizing pickets. He also stood in behalf of victims of police brutality and those charged with subversion cases.

He also became a member of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN), founded in 1967, which inculcated nationalism and promoted love of country and aims to protect the country against the encroachment of American colonialism.

As vice-mayor of Carcar belonging to the opposition party, he was also a vocal critic of the administration and the military abuses happening in his town.

The military branded him as a leftist or a sympathizer of the Left, at the least.

Three months of detention

For three months in Camp Sergio Osmeña, he was subjected to different forms of psychological torture. Along with fellow detainees, the young Meinrado Paredes (who is now Judge M. Paredes of the Regional Trial Court 7) and Cebuano historian and professor, Resil Mojares, they were threatened to be exiled and “sent to Corregidor anytime” where nobody will be able to visit them. They were also told that charges of subversion were filed against them in the military tribunal.

“Those were sleepless nights. I had only my wife’s visits to console me since my friends and colleagues were afraid to visit me, lest they be arrested too. My wife had to commute everyday from Carcar to visit,” he shared.

He finally got out of the police camp after three months, two days before Christmas, under conditional release. The conditions being he had to report every two weeks to the military camp; he was prohibited from issuing press releases or giving interviews; and he was not allowed to leave the province without a permit from the military. No charges were filed against him.

“Now, I know how it feels…”

When asked what he felt after the incident, he said, “ Now, I know how it feels to be arrested and detained without knowing exactly why but knowing fully that you did not do anything wrong other than standing up for your beliefs.”

His experience may have caused his family troubles but nevertheless, it strengthened his resolve to keep on working for the defense of human rights. Having experienced the brutality of prison, he can now truly feel for the victims of human rights violations.

It did not also affect his profession. According to him, “I went to prison because of my beliefs. I did not go there because I did something wrong. Now, that’s something.”

History’s encore: political repression and killings under the Arroyo administration

Now, 34 years and three more kids later, Mokring is still very active in human rights work. He never refuses invitations to speak at forums and gatherings regarding threats on civil liberties and human rights. A FLAG member since 1980, he is still an active HR lawyer.

As a former president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Cebu City Chapter and a current member of its Board of Directors, he lends influence and credibility to campaigns on human right issues such as the “vigilante” killings and cases of political repression in Cebu.

He is also a convenor of anti-Arroyo groups such as the Gloria Step down Movement (GSM) and the Concerned Cebuanos Against Gloria (CCAG) and joins protests whenever he can.

“It’s déjà vu. History is redundant, in a dangerous way. There are signs that GMA is going to perpetuate herself in power and does not hesitate to resort to draconian measures such as the PD 1017 issued last February. Since it is not easy for her to declare Martial Law due to the restrictions in the 1987 Constitution, she has to find more cunning ways to do what Marcos did. It’s 1972 once more,” he said. (Bulatlat.com)

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