Revisiting the 1950s: A military round-up

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

In a single day, military intelligence operatives rounded up over 50 suspected “subversives” in Manila, herded them inside a military camp’s officers’ clubhouse, and subjected each one to prolonged interrogation. Those who resisted answering or wouldn’t provide the desired information were physically tortured.

A present-day happening? Or a typical occurrence during the 14-year Marcos martial-law dictatorship? It could have been either one, but wasn’t. The incident happened on January 26, 1951.

That round-up followed the arrest in September 1950 of alleged leaders (Politburo members) of the old Communist Party of the Philippines. The unit involved in both operations was the MIS (Military Intelligence Service, today’s Intelligence Service of the AFP or ISAFP).

Many of those taken in were journalists from the three top dailies at the time – the Manila Times, Manila Chronicle, and Philippines Herald. They included Herald editor-in-chief Jose A. Lansang, young sportswriter Teodoro Benigno (later press secretary under President Cory Aquino), and crack police reporter Macario Vicencio (later elected National Press Club president).

Also arrested were officers of the Congress of Labor Organizations, headed by Amado V. Hernandez (later posthumously honored as National Artist for Literature). Charged with rebellion complexed with murder and other serious criminal offenses, Hernandez was acquitted by the Supreme Court in a decision that enshrined the political-offense doctrine. Upheld several times by the SC, the doctrine holds that common crimes, however serious, allegedly committed along with rebellion are absorbed by the latter, a political offense with a lighter penalty.

A personal account of the 1951 incident was narrated by the late Joaquin Po, civil libertarian and founder of the Popular Bookstore, in an article published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 18, 1986. Po’s daughter, Kit, read it at the celebration of his 100th birthday last December 9. Highly interesting and instructive, I can only share some highlights and quotes due to space limitations.

Po’s recollection focused on the late MIS/ISAFP officer, Col. Gregorio R. Perez, his arresting officer and torturer. It rekindled my own memories about Perez, with whom I had interfaced when I was a business editor-reporter and he was publicity man for Northern Motors in the late 1960s. (Po and Lansang had told me about his background.) After my own arrest in 1976, Perez visited me in solitary detention but he neither interrogated nor manhandled me. We just exchanged remarks. He said, “You have changed, Satur!” I replied, meaningfully: “Yes. But you, Greg, you have not changed!” He walked away.

What did Perez (then a lst lieutenant) do to Po? First he ransacked Po’s bookstore and private files, had his two brothers and three employees manning the store taken away. He likewise barged into Po’s residence, shocking Mrs. Po who was then five months pregnant. Perez seized a few books on philosophy (including George Santayana’s and Immanuel Kant’s) that he considered “subversive.”

Then at the Camp Murphy (now Camp Aguinaldo) clubhouse, Perez and his sidekick (1Lt. Cristobal Irlanda) “borrowed” Po away from his assigned interrogator, led him into the toilet in the basement to conduct his own version of interrogation, with negative result. Here’s Po’s account:

“When I [held] my ground, the two agents got very sore… They threatened to take me to Tagaytay (where suspected labor leaders like Joven, Feleo and Del Castillo were liquidated) for a ride. That is called ‘salvaging’ now. Irlanda took out his .45 pistol and cocked it to frighten me. When I did not budge, Perez blindfolded me with a handkerchief and ordered me to put my hands behind my neck. I think Perez and Irlanda took turns in giving me heavy blows in the solar plexus till I doubled up on the wet toilet floor. The two worked me over until I peed and shitted on my underpants.”

Taken back to the interrogation room at almost dawn, Po saw Col. Sixto Carlos Sr., then head of the MIS Legal Office doing the round of interrogation tables. He approached him and showed what Perez and Irlanda had done to him. Col. Carlos ordered him taken to the camp dispensary, where he was examined and treated by Maj. Jorge Ravadilla, whom Po described as an “avuncular and kindly medical officer.”

From there on things went positive for the detainee. He was spared from further interrogation and physical harm. His two brothers and employees were freed the next day. His brothers reported Po’s torture to then Rep. Emmanuel Pelaez, who informed Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay, Po wrote:

“All hell broke loose for the MIS, which had then been thought to be an elite intelligence unit which never resorted to torture or other star-chamber methods. The myth of its star quality was totally shattered, from which it never recovered.”

In retaliation, the MIS caused the front-page publication of Po’s mug shot with serial number plus the accusation that he had run a “message center for the subversives.” Po dared the MIS to prove the accusation and charge him in court: “It never did.,. I was released after 13 days of detention.”

Aided by Pelaez as private prosecutor, Po charged Perez with assault and battery, maltreatment and violation of the Articles of War for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. A court martial quickly heard the case and found Perez guilty as charged. However, he was merely fined P140 and his name was moved down the military roster.

Po didn’t pursue the case further. After all, he stressed, “I had already proved my point, knowing that there is such a thing known as “esprit de corps” in the military establishment. On his part, Perez earned the dubious distinction of being the first intelligence agent to have been charged and found guilty.”

Alas! since martial law and the climate of impunity, it hasn’t been that easy to charge and achieve conviction for torturers and grave human rights violators. Isn’t this an erroneous interpretation of esprit de corps?

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Published in The Philippine Star
December 12, 2015

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