“We, victims of political imprisonment in our country hope that Your Holiness may be able to help in pressing for the return of the lost freedom and other rights of political prisoners.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa began their five-day hunger strike on Jan. 10, before the much anticipated visit of Pope Francis in the country, as a testament to their “existence and dire plight.”
“We, political prisoners, are among those made to suffer terribly in this country, in the same way that you actually saw and have also been deeply concerned about in your own country, Argentina,” an open letter to Pope Francis from political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa read.
“We, victims of political imprisonment in our country hope that Your Holiness may be able to help in pressing for the return of the lost freedom and other rights of political prisoners,” the letter added.
The political prisoners said “a mere façade of democracy” replaced Martial Law, but “grave social and political ills” continued to pester in the country.
Political prisoners in other detention centers have began their fasting and will join the hunger strike on Jan. 15, the pope’s arrival.
The hunger strike will conclude on the Pope Francis’ departure on Jan. 19.
Putting them in prison, political prisoners said in the letter, was done to separate them from the people and the strugglingFilipino masses.
“We have been arbitrarily, unjustly and illegally imprisoned, heavily restricted and gravely repressed behind iron bars just because we have been asking to come out boldly and in numbers from the people, its various sectors and your flock: as ‘street fighters for change’ – as social-cause activists against poverty, against corruption, against oppression, against human rights violations, and against other basic ills in present society,” the letter read.
Human rights group Karapatan said there are 491 political prisoners detained in various detention cells nationwide.
Nikki Gamara, daughter of political prisoner Renante Gamara, said in a press conference that his father is not a criminal.
“He is a most peaceful man. He is a very good man. He was only pursuing genuine change that is why he was branded as enemy of the state,” she said in Filipino.
Gamara was joined by other relatives of political prisoners who attested that their loved ones are not criminals, far from what the trumped-up cases against them.
She said that she has high hopes that the pope will look into their concerns as Pope Francis has recently interceded to have the remaining Cuban 5 released from detention.
Melcy Torres, mother of activist Miradel Torres, said her daughter was arrested and sent to prison even if there was no hard evidence against her. Miradel was four months pregrant when she was arrested in 2014. She recently gave birth at the Philippine General Hospital.
“She is suffering. She did not commit any crime,” Torres tearily said.
Nimfa Lazanas, mother of Edward Lazanas, who was arrested along with Andrea Rosal, also appealed for the Pope to intercede for their release. His name was not even in the warrant presented against then seven-month pregrant Rosal.
Amador Cadano, father of Guiller Cadano, one of the two UP students who was abducted and later on surfaced in a police detention facility in Nueva Ecija, said now is the right time for the government to prove that they are sincere in pursuing peace talks.
Their call to release political prisoners, he added, will also help the government to project before the international community their resolve to address the human rights situation in the country.
“This should not even be requested before the government. This is not a precondition. This is their obligation when they signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, said.
Palabay said they will demand the release of all political prisoners as it is not just to put them in jail because of their political ideology. On top of this, she added, political prisoners are left to deal with the slow judicial proceedings in the country.
“Justice is cheap here. This is why the powerful would almost always win while the poor remains oppressed,” she said.
Previous papal visits
In the last two papal visits in the country of the late Pope John Paul II, political prisoners said such occasions helped reveal the “existence and dire situation of political prisoners then, despite malicious efforts to hide them.” It consequently led to compelling the government to release political prisoners.
In Pope John Paul II’s 1995 visit, political prisoners who were arrested after the martial law rule once again asked him to intercede for their release, which was consequently granted by then President Fidel Ramos.
The detainees’ letter said that President Aquino, meanwhile, continues to deny that there are political prisoners, despite the collective efforts of political prisoners, their relatives and their supporters, in sending their letters to the Pope.
Donation to Yolanda survivors
Political prisoners, in their open letter, said they wanted to donate the cost of their daily food ration to the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda, which they estimate to be about P10,000.
As of this writing, however, political prisoners are still receiving their food ration, which they refused to eat, according to Lydia Guray, mother of political prisoner Voltaire.
Lydia said her son is a good person, a cultural artist who would give workshops to out-of-school youth in urban poor communities but is now languishing in Camp Bagong Diwa because of a trumped-up case.
Do not militarize
In a statement, Palabay said that while it is the duty of the Aquino government to ensure the safety of the pope, “we fear that these so-called security measures will also be used to keep the Pope away from the people, especially those who would want him to know what ails in this country.”
The Armed Forces of the Philippines, she added, will try to hide legitimate issues and concerns of the Filipino people from Pope Francis. The military has already announced that it would deploy some 17,000 soldiers while the Philippine National Police said it would deploy roughly 20,000.
“The massive deployment of troops and policemen is an antithesis of the spirit of the Pope’s visit, although it bespeaks of the essence of this government. This ‘once in a lifetime event’ for the Filipino people and we do not want soldiers in their shadows. The people’s message might not reach Pope Francis,” Palabay said.
She added, “we cannot help but turn to Pope Francis because this government does not heed the victims’ call for justice. They would want him to hear their woes.”
Relatives of political prisoners, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, among others, will hold a series of activities during the papal visit. These include their visit to the Papal Nuncio, attending a people’s mass at Liwasang Bonifacio and the mass at Manila Cathedral.