Freed political detainee bares grim jail conditions

(Photo by Gino Estella /
(Photo by Gino Estella /

“There is budget for food, but other operating expenses are also taken from it.”


MANILA – After a year of imprisonment due to false charges, women rights’ defender Rosanna “Sharon” Cabusao finally found the opportunity to reveal the grim situation she experienced along with the other detainees at the Camp Bagong Diwa detention facility in Taguig City.

During a press conference on June 16, Cabusao said inmates experienced extreme hunger due to the poor food rations inside the jail.

“There is budget for food, but other operating expenses are also taken from it,” she explained.

“We seemed to be waiting for an MRT train as we wait outside,” she joked, describing queues for food in jail. Breakfast consisted only of a single bowl of lugaw (rice porridge), she said.

As of 2015, the nominal food budget per detainee stands at P50 ($1) to cover three meals per day. However, this is far from the recommended P87 ($2) budget of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, earlier reports stated.
Cabusao recalled the severely congested four cells of the area, in which 176 women detainees are cramped.

“In each cell, around 36 to 46 women are detained. Some have their own beds, while others lie down on the floor,” she narrated.

Behind bars

Cabusao is a former Gabriela public information officer and editor of the publication Pinoy Weekly. On June 1 last year, she was arrested in Bacoor, Cavite with her husband Adelberto Silva, peace consultant to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), and union activist Isidro de Lima.

She was among 541 individuals imprisoned because of their affiliations and beliefs, and one of the 292 people who were charged and detained during Aquino’s term.

Political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa have regular visiting hours and are generally treated the same as common crime prisoners. Still, the others received worse treatment than her, Cabusao said.

“I and the other political detainees are lucky to have strong support from our friends and human rights organizations,” she said. “There was a level of ease in prison, but that is because we asserted our rights as prisoners.”

She and de Lima were granted freedom after the illegal possession of explosives case against them was dismissed by the Bacoor Regional Trial Court. Her husband remains in detention in Camp Bagong Diwa, as he faces a multiple murder case connected to the alleged Leyte mass grave.

“I wanted to visit him when I got out,” she said. “But the lawyers advised me otherwise, because they said I might get another crime charged on me.”

She recalled Evelyn Legaspi, one of her former prison mates, a political prisoner who was freed, but was subsequently rearrested based on a criminal case in Mindoro.

She said Legaspi was charged with a “simple case” of mistaken identity, with a presumed name of “Anabelle Bueno.” The police failed to file the return warrant on one of her cases during her four years in prison. Cabusao blames the criminal justice system for Legaspi’s situation. Reforms must be made before the government considers other facets of the justice system, she said.

“We need to know that there remains many systemic hurdles to development,” she said. “That is why the masses need to remain vigilant and militant in fighting for their rights,” she added.

Moving forward

Meanwhile, Gabriela has manifested their support for the resumption of peace talks in July. Incoming President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed intention to free political prisoners as part of the confidence-building efforts.

The release of 18 NDFP consultants and other members protected by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (Jasig) is also anticipated, to allow them to participate in the peace talks.

Whether the decision to grant amnesty will still go through the Congress, the process might be faster since Duterte said it would be his top priority, said Gert Ranjo Libang, vice chairperson of Gabriela National Alliance.

Libang said they will intensify their campaigns for the immediate release of all political detainees, specially those who have illnesses, and those already 60 years old and above.

If the incoming president were true to his promise of change, he should start by showing off sincerity, Cabusao said. “The amnesty and the peace talks are our last hope,” she said. (

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