Jose Ceriales has been in prison since he was only 22. He recently walked out a free man at age 54.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Peasant activist Jose Ceriales was only 22 when he was arrested in 1985, and has since been in prison, convicted of murders he did not commit. On April 18, at age 54, his release order was the last thing he expected. “Is this real?” he asked. Then he thought about his brother and cousin, who have been detained with him for the past 32 years, and he wondered if they will all be released together.
On April 19, it was bittersweet freedom for Ceriales as he walked out of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, alone.
The past 32 years for Ceriales show how the judicial process can keep the innocent behind bars, but also how the human spirit can remain unbroken despite the battering of pain, grief and injustice.
In an interview with Bulatlat June 17, Ceriales recalled how he and his family have suffered the whole range of human rights violations – illegal arrest and detention, torture, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance of family members. Now a free man, he is committed to work for the release of his older brother, Hermie, and cousin Dione Palomar, as he is inspired at seeing the fruits of the mass movement he has supported.
Ceriales was convicted of multiple murder and frustrated murder. Human rights group Karapatan said he was included in the priority list of political detainees recommended to be released by President Duterte.
In April, Duterte gave presidential pardon to a number of prisoners, and Ceriales was among those released. Meanwhile, his two relatives are among some 400 political detainees who remain in jail for trumped-up charges.
Ceriales family suffered a slew of human rights abuses
Ceriales is from the peasant village of Candabong, in Manjuyod, Negros Oriental. His parents were separated, and he and his brothers took as surname their mother’s maiden name, Ceriales; they kept their father’s surname, Morte, as middle name. They were raised by their mother, who later re-married.
A typical peasant child, he worked in their upland farm, growing bananas and root crops, and also as a sacada in sugarcane plantations. It was the martial law era, and he became politically aware, as his uncles espoused progressive views, and were organized by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). Soon, he too, was joining protests and mass actions in the provincial capital in Dumaguete city.
As a youth, he learned about the raging national democratic revolution, and soon became a part of it, as a full-time peasant organizer at 18. He was assigned to different areas within and outside the province, and for years, work kept him away from his family.
At dawn in May 1985, he and his colleagues were in the nearby area and he decided to stop by his home to see his mother.
“As soon as I entered the kitchen, soldiers were there, 15 of them,” Ceriales recalled. They hogtied him and brought him to the Army detachment in Palanas, where he was tortured. The soldiers claimed he was a New People’s Army (NPA) member and blamed him for the encounter between the NPA and government troops in March 1985 in which two Army soldiers and two members of the Philippine Constabulary were killed.
“Suntok, tadyak, palo, kahit ano mahawakan nila, Armalite, carbine – pinapaamin ako sa kaso (They punched, kicked and hit me with whatever they could get their hands on, Armalite, carbine – just to get me to admit the charges),” he said.
The beatings were so severe that he urinated from the pain, vomited blood, bled through the nose.
”Me araw, me gabi, me hapon. Pag me lasing, pinagtitripan nila ako (They beat me up during the day, at night, in the afternoon. When they get drunk, they beat me up),” he told Bulatlat.
These went on for three months inside the Army stockade, to a point that the torturers broke both his arms. But they never treated him or brought him to a hospital. Soldiers even ordered him to make a run for the door so they can shoot him dead. “I can then barely move, let alone run,” he scoffed.
A soldier threatened him: “If you don’t confess, I will kill your family.” Ceriales said at one point, he admitted the false charges, just to stop the torture. “But I never admitted anything in court. I told them I was heavily tortured and forced to make false admission.”
Captured with him was his older brother Hermie. Shortly after, their cousin Dione Palomar was also arrested. Palomar was a college student in Bacolod city and was not even an activist.
“They suffered the same hardships as I did,” Ceriales said.
Three months later, in August, soldiers turned Ceriales over to the Manjuyod municipal jail, and the tortured stopped. At around this time, suspected soldiers barged into the home of Emiliano Morte, his father, and shot him dead in his sleep. Ceriales was not informed of his death until years later.
His cousin, Anatalio Yangco, was shot dead in the middle of the sugar cane field. The local village chief and soldiers were the suspected perpetrators. He also learned that his uncle, Gaudencio Balasabas and cousin, Ernesto Agravante, were abducted by suspected soldiers. They remain missing.
“Hanggang ngayon, walang hustisya (There is still no justice),” he said.
Victim of a failed justice system
After a week at the Manjuyod municipal jail, Ceriales and his kin were transferred to the Negros Oriental provincial jail in Dumaguete city. Even as their case was being heard, they learned that their court records were damaged by termites.
Months later, in February 1986, the Marcos Dictatorship was ousted by People Power which placed Corazon Aquino as president. Soon enough, she declared a general amnesty for all political prisoners of the martial law. Nine political prisoners at the Dumaguete provincial jail were all released, but Ceriales and his two kin were not because they lacked proof that their case was political.
He was so sad to be left behind, but then he started to accept his fate. “I thought, I would be in jail until I die,” he told Bulatlat.
In 1993, the three of them were convicted and transferred to the NBP in Metro Manila. In 1997, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.
Ceriales said that aside from the multiple and frustrated murder case, he was charged with various other criminal cases – another multiple murder, illegal gambling, arson – all meant to keep him in jail. But these were all eventually dismissed.
He said the illegal gambling charge filed in 1995 was so ridiculous because it alleged that in the middle of his serving his sentence, he went to a casino in Manila. “They’re saying that I got out and went gambling?”
Life inside the jail
Doing his time inside the NBP, Ceriales was able to continue his basic education under the Alternative Learning System. He finished grade 10 in the K to 12 program. He also joined an evangelical group and its study program, and acquired a Diploma in Theology. He said he is just four subjects short to get a Bachelor’s degree in theology.
He also joins in the discussion with other political detainees, as they organize other prisoners in NBP.
Ceriales said he was not able to court any woman while in detention. But he kept a close friendship with a former girlfriend from Negros. While still in detention in Dumaguete, she wrote him that she was marrying another man. Ceriales learned that she bore seven children, but her husband had died. While in Muntinlupa, Ceriales received word from her, saying that she was working in Manila. She regularly visited him and gave him what little support she can: small cash, medicine, school supplies.
Ceriales said she was among his first visitors when he got out of jail.
Freedom: a full circle turn
After getting his release order, Ceriales thought, “Where would I go?” He was so unnerved he did not sleep for four nights – his last night in prison, and three nights as a free man.
“Di ako makatulog, di ako napapagod (I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t feel tired),” he told Bulatlat. He would awaken thinking he was still in jail, in the brigada. Then he would remember that there are no more bars around him: “A, laya na nga pala ako.”
Now he is a member of the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda). The group is leading the campaign for the release of all political prisoners. Back in circulation so to speak, he has joined all possible mass actions and gatherings. He was part of the 100 voice-chorale which sang at the kick-off activity for the 100th year celebration of the October Russian Revolution.
Ceriales said he gets specially charged when he joins big rallies. He may not be spritely as before, and is now affected by a few ailments. Yet he said he can endure the heat and fatigue in long marches, energized in the company of thousands of kindred spirits. “I am like a parched farm getting soaked in rain and fertilized,” he said in Filipino.
He now looks ahead to campaigns for the release of more political prisoners, particularly his kin, Hermie and Palomar. He also hopes he can still marry and start a family.
Ceriales compared life to travelling down a long road, on which one must not easily give up until one has reached the rightful destination. Prison was once his dead end, but now he is back on the road to continue his journey.