By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Justice Secretary Leila de Lima pledged to study the cases of political prisoners in a dialogue with human rights groups today.
Leaders of Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda), Karapatan and other groups sought a dialogue with de Lima and presented a proposal for a general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty for all political prisoners. According to the groups, there are 335 political prisoners languishing in 63 jails all over the country.
“I told them it’s not as easy as that. The most we can do is to study individually these cases, to determine whether they are qualified [for amnesty],” De Lima told reporters after the dialogue.
“In any case, we have to process this list to determine if there is basis for the request for clemency, particularly pardon,” referring to the list of political prisoners submitted by Selda and Karapatan.
De Lima said she would convene probably next week the Presidential Committee for Bail, Recognizance and Pardon (PCBReP), of which she is the chair.
In a statement, Marie Hilao-Enriquez, Karapatan chairwoman said: “It is ironic that President Benigno S. Aquino III boasts of his parents’ legacy—that of fighting and dying for democracy in this country—while the number of political prisoners continues to rise in his government, under his ‘straight path.’”
De Lima said the “number one challenge is how to really define political prisoners.” “Government has not acceded to coming up with a definition of political prisoners,” De Lima said, admitting that the executive has not taken up the issue yet.
“This is a recurring issue. We may consider coming up with mutually-accepted definition of political prisoners,” De Lima said, adding that no domestic law defines political prisoners.
For Karapatan, political prisoners are victims of political persecution because of their political beliefs, but are falsely charged with common crimes to conceal their existence. They are mostly illegally arrested and detained, without warrants of arrests, if not faulty ones. They have also been subjected to different forms of torture while under the custody of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and/or the Philippine National Police (PNP).
De Lima said it would seem that many of the political prisoners are charged or convicted with common crimes.
Former political prisoner Angie Ipong who also joined the dialogue said political prisoners like her are slapped with trumped-up charges. After six years, the charges against Ipong, all of which are common crimes, including murder, had been dismissed. She was released in February.
“They [political prisoners] are charged with fabricated common crimes, conveniently hiding the political nature of their cases, thereby hiding the political persecution,” Ipong said.
According to Tanggol Bayi, a women’s rights group, many of the political prisoners are human rights defenders “who have been very active in defending the political, economic and socio-cultural rights of the people.” Of the 335 political prisoners, 30 are women.
“The continued incarceration of these women human rights defenders impeded their work in pursuit of women’s human rights,” Cristina Palabay, Tanggol Bayi convenor, said.
During the President Corazon Aquino administration, De Lima said it is clear that there were political prisoners and so she granted amnesty. “Are there still political prisoners these days? That would be reviewed by the Presidential Committee,” De Lima said.
The justice secretary said the military leadership during the previous administration would not accept that there are political prisoners. She said she has yet to find out with the current military leadership.
For Ipong, the demand for general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty for all political prisoners is “but just and reasonable because political prioners are victims of the Arroyo government’s covert policy of political persecution.”
De Lima said the decisions would be on a case-to-case basis.
“If only the President listens to the people’s reaction on the ground, he would know that his “bosses” are getting frustrated because he has yet to make a significant decision in his first year in office. Let this decision be the release of political prisoners,” challenged Hilao-Enriquez.
Karapatan recalled that it only took the President’s mother, Corazon Aquino less than a month to release majority, if not all political prisoners during her term through a general, unconditional and omnibus amnesty during her first year in office.
Hilao-Enriquez reiterated that, “for a self professed human rights advocate, President Aquino should walk the talk now. We are giving him the opportunity to prove the people wrong by releasing the political prisoners now. In the first place, the political prisoners shouldn’t have been in prison if this country is truly democratic and free, as he said so in his speech on June 12.’’