Memos and Verses from the ‘Tomb of the Living’

The nightmare experience exactly a year ago (April 28, 2006) is still vivid for detainees Axel Pinpin, Riel Custodio, Aristedes Sarmiento, Enrico Ybañez,and Michael Masayes, collectively known as the “Tagaytay 5.”

BY DENNIS ESPADA
Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 12 April 29-May 5, 2007

CALAMBA CITY, LAGUNA (52 kms. south of Manila) – The nightmare experience exactly a year ago (April 28, 2006) is still vivid for detainees Axel Pinpin, Riel Custodio, Aristedes Sarmiento, Enrico Ybañez,and Michael Masayes, collectively known as the “Tagaytay 5.”

How they wished they were actors for an action movie that would all end with the director’s cut when armed men in plain clothes blocked them abruptly at gunpoint while riding a rented vehicle along a narrow road in Barangay Sungay in Tagaytay City (some 56 kms. south of Manila), forced to board a van and held down on the floor blindfolded and handcuffed at the back.

As per Sarmiento’s account, their captors–who later turned out to be officers and soldiers of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Navy – hid them for seven harrowing days “na parang bola na pinagpasa-pasahan sa apat na kampo militar at paulit-ulit na itinangging hawak nila kami” (like a ball that was passed on through four military camps, with them repeatedly denying they were holding us).

“Piniringan kami habang ilegal at duwag na ininteroga; manaka-nakang pinatikim ng romansa-militar; binantaang isa-salvage at kukuryentihin; inalok na ‘bumaligtad’ o ‘ilaglag ang mga kasama niyo, may pera pa kayo!’ hanggang sa sinampahan ng gawa-gawang kaso ng rebelyon at murder matapos ang mahigit 100 oras na dukutin” (We were blindfolded while illegally and cowardly being subjected to interrogation; tortured from time to time; threatened with summary execution or electrocution; offered with the option of ‘capitulation’ or ‘you’ll obtain money if you squeal against your comrades!’ until we were charged with fabricated rebellion and murder cases after over 100 hours since our abduction), Sarmiento recalled. ”Hanggang 36 oras lamang maaaring legal na idetine ang sinumang suspek nang walang habla sa korte. Ipinagkait sa amin ang karapatang magkaroon ng abogado sa loob ng pitong araw na iyon” (A suspect may only be legally detained for 36 hours without charges. But we were denied of our right to a legal counsel for seven days.)

Families and friends attested that Custodio, Pinpin and Sarmiento are peasant organizers and agriculturists allied with the Kalipunan ng mga Magsasaka sa Kabite (Kamagsasaka-Ka or Association of Cavite Farmers) working on rural development projects, while Ybañez and Masayes are simply cock-fighting enthusiasts who live in Tagaytay City.

In a press briefing on Labor Day 2006, then PNP chief Gen. Arturo Lomibao claimed having thwarted another “destabilization plot” against the government, proof of which was the “arrest” of the five who they accused as New People’s Army (NPA) rebels. But Commissioner Wilhelm Soriano of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said they were actually abducted, not arrested.

Nightmares end, they thought. But being locked-up daily in a cramp, 5 x 6-meter cell here (“the tomb of the living,” they say) at the Base Police Detention Center inside Camp Vicente Lim in Canlubang, everything is for real as they actually feel its brunt on their weakening bodies and empty stomachs.
Hunger strike

A hunger striker’s body uses energy from glucose during the first three days, after which the liver would start processing body fat. The body then gets into a starvation mode three weeks later where it “mines” the muscles and vital organs for energy. Body resistance is estimated to last within 60 days.

Being aware of the perils, Custodio, Pinpin and Sarmiento led the group’s prison protest that started with a 40-day fast from Feb. 20 to March 31, subsisting only on biscuits and liquids. During the onset of Holy Week (April 1), they began to shun biscuits and declared a full-scale hunger strike. Meanwhile, Masayes and Ybañez maintained their regular meals due to health considerations.

They recalled the prison struggles of Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. and other political prisoners during the Marcos martial law regime, whose conditions they said were similar to theirs. They also cited as example the raging hunger strikes of Muslim detainees under U.S. military prisons in Guantanamo Naval Base in 2005.

Artists, lawmakers, professionals, non-government organizations, leftists and religious groups were since drawn together in their quest for justice and freedom, prompting political detainees Eduardo “Edik” Serrano, Sandino Esguerra, Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Rep. Crispin Beltran and others to also stage their own sympathy fast.

The group also reaped compassion from Bp. Leo Drona of the Diocese of San Pablo who called for solidarity with political prisoners among the Catholic faithful; instructing the Diocesan Prison Ministry to do fact-finding missions and requesting parishes to hold jail visits.

Captive poet

With poet Pinpin among those languishing in jail, it is as though writers, artists and cultural workers are being gagged – threatened that they might suffer the same fate if they opt to be vocal in resisting oppression.

Even the Philippine chapter of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists), a global federation of writers across all genres that advocate freedom of expression and writer’s rights, has joined other artists’ groups in calling to free Pinpin – a 1999 Fellow for Poetry of the UP (University of the Philippines) National Writers Workshop and author of a poetry compilation called Tugmaang Walang Tugma (Rhyming Without Rhymes).

What is the implication of his captivity for Filipino poets and artists?

“Tingin ko mas malaking impact ang pagkakahuli” (I think the abduction made a big impact), Pinpin told Bulatlat in an interview in May 2006. “Kumbaga, sana magsilbi siyang eye-opener kung saan ba dapat papunta ang mga makatang Pilipino. Kumbaga, dapat ‘yung poetry hindi lang sana mapunta doon sa libro kundi mapunta mismo sa mamamayan; na dapat magsilbi kung saan ba dapat magsilbi ‘yung poetry na ginagawa ng mga makata. ‘Yun, mas ganun ko siya naiisip. (I hope it serves as an eye-opener on the right path for Filipino poets is. Poetry should not only end up in books but should reach the people; that poems produced by poets should serve those it must serve. That’s what I think.)

Recounting their ordeal in the poem “Ang Pagdalaw sa Libingan ng mga Buhay” (A Visit to the Tomb of the Living), he wrote:

Ang binubulok dito’y hindi malamig na katawang-lupa
Kundi mga pangarap at alab ng hangad ng paglaya.
Ang inaagnas dito’y hindi buto, buhok at ngipin
Kundi mga karanasan ng paglaban ng kauring alipin.

To sustain the spirit of defiance, the Amado V. Hernandez Resource Center (AVHRC), a cultural institution named after the late National Artist who was also detained on charges of rebellion, visited and brought them last March some books, speeches and performances, and a petition letter for their release with several signatories including 2006 National Artist for Literature Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, novelists Jose Dalisay, Jr. and Ave Perez Jacob, and Parañaque City Rep.Roilo Golez among others.

At kung maliligaw ka sa paghahanap ng aming puntod,
Hanapin lamang ang kurus na punglo sa baywang ng mga tanod.
Ang nitso nami’y di marmol, bagkus ay kalawanging rehas
At sa lapida ay nakaukit ang walang-kamatayang pag-aaklas.

Respect for prisoners’ rights

Though the hunger strike may have fueled unfavorable publicity for the PNP, appeals that revolve around the issue of “cruel” and “undue punishment” of prisoners – such as denial of basic rights like a visitors’ area, sunning and outdoor exercises, conjugal visits, adequate medical care, recreational stuffs, proper beds or sleeping materials; and of past offenses such as abduction, torture, illegal detention, “incriminatory machination” and robbery – are still unresolved. Philippine penal regulations guarantee these basic rights.

So far, the detainees’ request for sunning, outdoor exercises and check-up by doctors of their choice have been granted. Other petitions mentioned above remain unheeded by the PNP Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon) under its regional director Chief Supt. Nicasio Radovan, Jr.

The Tagaytay 5 believe their continued incarceration without trial and evidence is rooted in the Arroyo administration’s conspiracy to have them rot in jail bearing the tag “terrorists” or “enemies of the state” under its “national security” program Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Freedom Watch). Indications show that what the PNP and the Department of Justice (DoJ) wanted from the beginning is a speedy arraignment and a “moro-moro” hearing that would immediately result to a conviction, they said.

On April 21, Custodio passed out as he tried to stand up. Pinpin also collapsed a day before while doing an outdoor exercise with fellow inmates. Doctors said these are due to severe lack of sugar in the blood. It also turned out that the clinic inside the camp where they were brought in is not equipped nor its personnel prepared to handle such kind of emergencies, besides not having the courtesy to rush them to a nearby hospital.

If all these were not bad enough, one of the five remarked, perhaps these are warning signs: their tormenters really want them dead.

When asked what would rectify the abuses and end all their hardships, they told that all the PNP-DoJ need to do is simply file an affidavit of desistance to withdraw their charges, return all properties they stole including the money they have taken during their abduction, and ultimately set them free. Bulatlat

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