Behind Bars: The Travails of a Political Prisoner

Randall Echanis, of the militant peasant organization the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, is not the only political prisoner of the Arroyo regime. There are currently 240 prisoners in detention by the count of Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainee Laban sa Detensyon at para sa Amnestiya (SELDA), an organization dedicated to helping political prisoners.

Philippine Collegian
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 10, April 13-19, 2008

A group of peasant leaders and activists gathered in a training center in Bago City, Negros Occidental, for a conference on genuine agrarian reform. One of those present was Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis, deputy secretary-general of the militant peasant organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, and a consultant in peace talks for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

During the consultations, armed men showed up to arrest Echanis. He was charged with 15 counts of murder of suspected government spies within the communist New People’s Army (NPA) during 1984, which led to the discovery of alleged mass graves in Leyte.

It was January 28, mere days after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo extended the term of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Hermogenes Esperon, who had vowed to render the communist insurgency “inconsequential” by 2010. He declared that the next few months would be “bloody,” and called the capture of Echanis “a big blow to the communist movement.”

Crime and politics

Echanis is not the only political prisoner of the Arroyo regime. There are currently 240 prisoners in detention by the count of Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainee Laban sa Detensyon at para sa Amnestiya (SELDA), an organization dedicated to helping political prisoners.

SELDA defines political prisoners as “men and women who, as a consequence of their political work and organizational affiliations [are] arrested, captured or abducted, tried…and sent to prison.”

During Martial Law, antiquated policies like the Anti-Subversion Law (ASL) tagged activism and political dissent as “subversive” acts punishable by imprisonment. Enacted in 1957, the ASL was junked under President Fidel Ramos, although the Arroyo administration later tried but failed to revive it.

Donato Continente, SELDA spokesperson and a political prisoner for 16 years, pointed out that crimes against persons are easier to fabricate than crimes against the public order, leading to a growing number of “criminalized” political prisoners. “Rebellion” under the revised penal code entails “rising publicly and taking arms against the Government,” which excludes unarmed and legal leftist organizations.

Thus, the Arroyo administration takes a different tact, filing criminal charges like murder against political foes of the government.

This was illustrated in February 2006, at the height of Arroyo’s declared State of Emergency. Over 50 leftist leaders, including Echanis, were charged with rebellion. The Supreme Court (SC) dismissed the charges with finality in July, stressing that even if the accused were indeed members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – which was never actually proven – “mere membership in the CPP does not constitute rebellion.”

This violates a landmark 1956 ruling by the SC – known as the Amado Hernandez doctrine, named after the defendant in the case – which prohibits the prosecution of a person for allegedly committing a common crime in furtherance of rebellion.

Serving time

It was not the only time that Echanis was targeted for state persecution.

He has been arrested thrice since he first began working as a peasant organizer in the countryside. The first time was in 1983, under then President Ferdinand Marcos. Echanis was arrested without a warrant, held in solitary confinement for years, and released after the EDSA Revolution.

Dozens of his fellow political prisoners stayed imprisoned, however, and dozens more were detained under the new president, Corazon Aquino, prompting Echanis to join SELDA.

In 1990, Echanis was arrested for violation of PD 1866 or the “illegal possession of firearms in furtherance of rebellion.”

State elements reportedly subjected him to physical and psychological torture. His wife Linda Lacaba-Echanis asserts that this was due to his affiliation with legal organizations critical of the Aquino administration.

It would be two years before the Makati Regional Trial Court dismissed the case against him.

Now, as Echanis is detained yet again, human rights organization Karapatan notes that his arrest violates the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, which stipulates that official delegates to peace talks between the government and the NDFP are immune to arrest.

Meanwhile, Continente said, “Wala akong nakitang totoong pagbabago mula nang pumasok ako sa kulungan noong 1989 hanggang sa nakalaya ako noong 2005” ( I do not see real change since I was arrested in 1989 up to the time I was released in 2005) The tactics have changed, he said, yet activists like Echanis are still being imprisoned for their political beliefs.

All-out war

Even as Arroyo allows her political opponents to languish in prison, however, she grants pardon to criminals like convict Norberto Manero, who murdered Fr. Tulio Favali, an Italian priest and alleged communist sympathizer, in 1985.

She even pardoned former President Joseph Estrada, in a move her critics say was intended to allay opposition from Estrada’s supporters.

“This shows that Arroyo is not serving the interests of the people, but her own,” said Continente, adding that a disturbing aspect of Arroyo’s protection of her own interests is her intolerance for opposition.

This was seen in the extension of Esperon’s term, which has been decried by leftist congressmen as illegal.

In addition, many of the Arroyo administration’s counterinsurgency strategies, from Oplan Bantay Laya I and II as well as the Human Security Act of 2007, permit the classification of leftist groups as “terrorists.” These tactics operate on the premise that an ideology like communism, which opposes the status quo, necessitates swift and even violent suppression.

And despite judicial reaffirmations of the right to freedom of belief, leftist groups continue to be treated as “enemies of the state.”

The recent arrest of Echanis is a prime example. He was in detention during 1985, the time that military witnesses claim the CPP “purge” took place. Yet he is currently imprisoned in the Leyte provincial jail for those alleged murders.

Indeed, since the military discovered them in 2006, the Leyte mass graves have served as a pretext for filing murder charges against prominent leftist leaders like Rep. Satur Ocampo and exiled CPP founder Jose Maria Sison – the same people who escaped charges of rebellion during the 2006 State of Emergency.

Such moves are in line with Arroyo’s declaration of an “all-out war” against rebellion, and serve as the groundwork for political persecution by undermining basic rights like the freedom of speech and assembly.

The growing number of political prisoners under the Arroyo regime is symptomatic of the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country, marked by a broad spectrum of violations that includes extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. KMP has spearheaded the Free Randall Echanis movement, and its members have vowed to continue fighting not only for Echanis’s release, but for the ouster of Arroyo, whom they charge with “politically motivated” human rights violations.

For in the end, it is not only Echanis who must be freed from jail; the people themselves must be freed from the chilling fear instilled by flagrant state persecution. The true “enemies of the state” are not the critics of the Arroyo administration, but the perpetrators of widespread and unrelenting human rights violations. Philippine Collegian / Posted by (

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