By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
Last Tuesday, as the nation prepared to welcome Pope Francis, 491 political detainees in 43 jails across the country went on a hunger strike that’ll run simultaneously with the papal visit.
Their objective: to elicit the Pope’s intercession to attain their quest for freedom and justice. Primarily they urge the release of all political prisoners, starting with 53 who are ailing, 42 who are elderly, and two women who recently gave birth while in detention.
Justifying their immediate release, the detainees protest their treatment thus:
• the security forces who arrested and interrogated them violated their human rights;
• trumped-up charges of common crimes (mostly non-bailable) were filed against them, whereas they had been arrested for their political beliefs and “anti-government” activities;
• because of the defective justice system, the resolution of their cases is mishandled and delayed;
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• the jail administrators maltreat them, arbitrarily denying their rights, such as to appropriate and adequate medical care, sunning and physical exercise, visitors, etc.
Can the political detainees achieve their objective, given the myriad issues and petitions that have been raised, all seeking Pope Francis’ attention and action?
I remember that when Pope John Paul II – now a saint – came to the country in February 1981, two hunger strikes inspired by his visit occurred; both were victorious.
Three months before (Nov. 3, 1980), 135 political detainees at the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center (now Camp Bagong Diwa), including myself, launched an indefinite hunger strike. We demanded the immediate release of 83 among us, mostly those detained without charges.
After two weeks, the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Bruno Torpigliani, arrived and officiated a mass. Two days later Cardinal Jaime Sin came bearing good news: the dictator-president Marcos “would soon release a substantial number of detainees.”
Surprise! In December and January, 100 detainees were freed.
But there was reprisal: Tagged as leaders of the hunger strike, Pepe Luneta and I were forcibly taken away and held in solitary confinement for five months at the Maximum Security Unit in Fort Bonifacio. (A few years later, Pepe and I separately managed to escape to freedom.)
On Jan. 17, 1981, weeks before the pope’s arrival, Marcos issued Proclamation 2045 “lifting” martial law. (A sham it was, as one-man rule was retained until his ouster in February 1986.) He also ordered the closure of the Bicutan detention center. The remaining 35 political detainees there were transferred to the National Bilibid Prison maximum security area for convicted felons. (“To hide them from the pope,” according to their relatives.)
The 35 detainees protested. A week before John Paul II arrived they went on another hunger strike, sending a letter of appeal to him via Kapatid, the association of political detainees’ relatives. The pope personally received the letter. How, I’ll tell you later.
Papal response was swift. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Agostinho Casaroli, visited Muntinlupa and said mass. For almost an hour he talked with the political detainees. Later, a number of them were freed.
Much of the credit for the successful hunger strikes was attributed to meticulous planning and execution. Add to that the extensive coverage by the leading alternative information sources then – Jose G. Burgos Jr.’s We Forum, the Philippine Collegian, and the foreign media – plus the valuable support of the Concerned Women of the Philippines (particularly by Cecilia Munoz-Palma, Nini Quezon-Avancena, Maria Feria, and Thelma Arceo), the newly-founded Kilusang Mayo Uno, and youth-student and other sectoral organizations.
But the legwork was done by Kapatid, specifically by three brave young women, wives of hunger-striking political detainees: Bing Camacho-Galang, Bernadette Aquino, and Ester Ceniza-Isberto. (My memories were refreshed by “Iting” Isberto’s exciting account of their experiences.)
A detained Catholic priest, Fr. Pepito “Pites” Bernardo, who said the daily mass during the earlier hunger strike, was responsible for discreetly writing to the Papal Nuncio, inviting him to visit us. He was among those freed.
And who handed over the detainees’ letter directly to the Pope during the second hunger strike? As Isberto tells it:
“As the popemobile travelled slowly from the airport to the Apostolic Nunciature on Taft Avenue, relatives positioned themselves near the gate. When the popemobile stopped and the Pope and Archbishop Torpigliani stepped out of the vehicle, one petite young lady, in cat-like fashion, slipped through the security cordon, knelt at the feet of the Pope, kissed his hand, kissed his ring and quickly said, ‘Your Holiness, there are political detainees now on hunger strike. Here is their letter to you.” After handing over the letter, she just as quickly disappeared into the crowd.”
The dictatorship-era’s political detainees raised other issues with present-day parallels:
They wanted Marcos to rescind new detention rules that: a) required his approval before anyone could be freed (earlier, only Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile’s order was required), b) similarly, those arrested through ASSO (arrest, search and seizure order) couldn’t be freed by the courts without Marcos’ approval. They also demanded that those held in solitary confinement in other camps and in “safehouses” be transferred to regular detention centers, and that government improve prison conditions in all detention centers in every province.
Unjust arrests and detention practices are, indeed, intractable.
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Published in The Philippine Star
January 17, 2015