By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Detained peace consultants of the National Democratic of the Philippines (NDFP) are looking forward to see incoming President Rodrigo Duterte make good on his pronouncement to release all political prisoners in the country.
“We see this as a positive step towards ‘straightening’ rights violations committed against political prisoners and the Filipino people,” read a joint statement of spouses Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria, which they handed to Bulatlat during the hearing today, May 20, at the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 37.
The Tiamzons, both NDFP peace consultants, are covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (Jasig) between the Philippine government and the NDFP. But two years ago, the two were arrested, charged with various trumped-up cases, and have since been kept in detention. The military claimed that they are ranking officials of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The couple attended the multiple murder charges hearing today at a Manila court, along with other NDFP peace consultants and known progressive activists and peasant leaders.
The Tiamzons said political prisoners, many of whom are poor farmers, were wrongly accused of criminal charges due to their struggle for their rights and welfare. They said they have been victims of “planted evidence” and “false testimonies” by the privileged and ruling classes.
Human rights group Karapatan said there are 541 political prisoners in various detention facilities in the country. Among them are 18 NDFP peace consultants and 88 ailing prisoners.
Possible cabinet positions?
Apart from the possibility of releasing political detainees, the incoming Duterte administration also offered at least four cabinet positions in the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Agrarian Reform, Labor and Employment, and the Environment and Natural Resources.
After the hearing, the NDFP peace consultants were asked if they would be interested to join Duterte’s administration once they are released. They attempted to evade the question with measured levity. Finally, NDFP peace consultant and trade union activist Adelberto Silva said an office “outside” the Labor department would be very much welcomed.
“Sa piling ng masa (Among the masses),” Tiamzon interjected when he overheard Silva’s answer.
Both Silva and the Tiamzons expressed willingness to join the peace talks between the Philippine government and the NDFP “towards ending the roots of armed conflict and gaining a just and lasting peace.”
But despite their seeming disinterest to secure government positions, the Tiamzons said they are extending their full support to nationalist and progressive forces who are currently being fielded to fill cabinet positions being offered by Duterte.
“President Duterte’s offer goes to show his seriousness to attain unity and cooperation from all democratic forces,” the spouses said, adding that this is necessary towards a genuine social and political change.
Silva said ending contractualization would pose a big challenge to the Duterte administration. During the campaign, Duterte assailed such unfair labor practice and vowed to end it if voted as president.
“Only then will Digong gain even more support from the toiling masses,” he added.
Meanwhile, Capt. John Saya-ang of the 43rd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army took the witness stand again as the multiple murder charges in relation with the alleged mass grave in Inopacan, Leyte, continued.
Among those charged are several NDFP peace consultants including the Tiamzon spouses and Silva, and known progressive leaders.
Saya-ang, in an earlier hearing at the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 37, claimed that the presence of the alleged mass graves begun when they heard “noises” and “drum beatings” in the evening of Aug. 25, 2006. The following day, he asked a certain Floro Tanaig if there were festivities in the community.
Tanaig told them that the noises must be coming from those allegedly killed back in the 1980s and “wanted their sprits to be felt.”
Tanaig, whom Saya-ang claimed he knew by face for a long time, led their platoon towards where the alleged mass grave was eventually found. The road to get there included getting through thickly-forested area and terrains as steep as 70 degrees.
Rachel Pastores of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) said the witness earlier claimed he pursued the information because he believed in the ghost story relayed to them. But the cross examination today revealed Saya-ang went where the “ghosts” were just to “please” Tanaig.
Pastores told Bulatlat after the hearing that such storyline is “incredulous.”
Human rights organizations have assailed that the murder charges in relation to the mass grave was meant to silence critics as part of the efforts of the Inter-agency Legal Action Group under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Although IALAG has since been defunct, charges against government critics continued under President Aquino.