“We want to show the Pope what this government might try to hide from him. And that is the worsening human rights situation.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Following Pope Francis’ pronouncements urging the Sri Lanka government to pursue truth, relatives of political prisoners gathered in front of the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila urging the pope to intercede for the release of their loved ones.
“We want to show the Pope what this government might try to hide from him. And that is the worsening human rights situation,” Nikki Gamara, daughter of political prisoner Renante Gamara, tearily said during the program.
Gamara referred to Pope Francis as “Lolo Kiko” (Grandpa Kiko). Asked why, she told Bulatlat.com that the pope has time and again made pro-poor statements and even veered away from Vatican protocols to be closer to the masses. She referred to him as a grandfather as she would ask a family elder to look after their loved ones, she added.
In his Sri Lanka visit, Pope Francis was quoted in a BBC report addressing his audience to pursue truth “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.”
The last few years of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009, were marred with the killings of thousands of civilians. Its government has denied its hand in the killings but the United Nations has recently approved an inquiry into the alleged crimes.
Gamara said she has high hopes that the Pope, too, will look into their concern.
“We know that we will find an ally in him,” she said, adding that Pope Francis will have a “pivotal role” in the release of political prisoners in the same way that he interceded for the release of the remaining members of the Cuban 5.
There are 491 political prisoners in the country detained in some 50 detention facilities in the country.
Repression of detainees
In a statement, human rights group Karapatan said political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa who have started their hunger strike as early as Jan. 10 are experiencing harassment from jail authorities.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, said they have been deprived of their sunning rights and their right to be visited by a physician of their choice.
Dr. Julie Caguiat of the Council for Health and Development and paralegal Bernard Zamora were barred from entering the Special Intensive Care Area 1 at Camp Bagong Diwa on Jan. 13. The two are frequent visitors of political prisoners but they were told that they were not in the prisoners’ list of visitors and doctors.
Jail authorities also asked Dr. Caguiat and Zamora to secure a permit from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
Lawyers, too, were not allowed to talk to the political prisoners over the phone.
Palabay said this is a clear violation of the law, which stipulates that families, doctors, lawyers, human rights organizations, among others should have access to detainees any time.
“We do not have any idea about the condition of the political prisoners inside the SICA-1 days after their declaration of hunger strike. Who knows if they are already in need of medical attention?” she said.
For Yolanda survivors
Political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa have earlier announced that they plan to donate the cost of their food ration, pegged at $220, to the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda. But jail authorities continue to send their food to their respective cells.
“We reiterate our request that the delivery of food rations be just for the two non-political inmates here, and the rest meant for us 22 political prisoners be stopped, so that the food rations and the budget not be wasted and, instead be made to benefit the aforementioned disaster victims,” the statament, signed by political detainees in Camp Bagong Diwa, read.
Political prisoners in other detention facilities will begin their hunger strike on Jan. 15 and will conclude on Jan. 19.