By IAN IRVING BAZARTE
MANILA – Ten political prisoners who had just been released from the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) are now calling for the freedom of the many other political prisoners still languishing in various jails and prisons around the country.
The 10 political prisoners were convicted of trumped-up charges, varying in intensity from robbery to multiple murders, and had served time in jail from 10 to 21 years. They were released yesterday, July 6, by virtue of President Duterte’s conditional pardon, dated June 28.
They are: National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultant Emeterio Antalan, Ricardo Solangon, Joel Ramada, Apolonio Barado, Jose Navarro, Generoso Rolida, Arnulfo Boates, Manolito Matricio, Josue Ungsod, and Sonny Marbella.
Boates, an Albay native, was arrested in 1996 and was the longest detained among the 10.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan) welcomed the release of the 10, but stressed that their release must not be used as a bargaining chip by the government in their talks with the NDFP and undermine discussions about important socioeconomic reforms.
She said the 10 are a mere fraction of at least 392 political detainees who continue to languish in jail and many more are being illegally arrested under Duterte’s martial law.
Palabay also said that Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), signed in 1998 between the NDFP and the Philippine government, requires the government to respect the rights of all prisoners and release all political prisoners.
Resume peace talks and free other PPs
Emeterio Antalan, who was arrested in 2007 and falsely convicted in 2015 with the murder of a certain Kathlyn Ramos, hailed Duterte’s grant of pardon, but added that the slow trickle of release has been frustrating.
“Matagal nang pangako, na nagbabago-bago. Mula sa ‘free all,’ naging amnesty, naging pabagu-bagong bilang, mula sa 200…50, naging 10 na lang, na kung tutuusin, dapat palayain lahat ng bilanggong pulitika,,” he added.
Antalan hoped that with the continuation of the peace talks, all other political prisoners around the country will be released.
Ricardo Solangon of Occidental Mindoro, who was 29 when he was charged with kidnapping with murder in 1996, said the main reason why political prisoners abound is because of the government’s inaction.
“Political prisoners are increasing because of the injustice felt by various sectors of our society,” he said.
Solangon also called for a swift resumption of the peace talks between the Philippine government and the NDFP, which was indefinitely suspended following Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao and his subsequent pronouncements that the New People’s Army (NPA) was included in the targets of martial law.
Manolito Matricio, detained due to a charge of double murder, agreed with Solangon, and implored the public to continue supporting the peace talks, for the sake of political prisoners who remain in prisons if nothing else.
“We should remember that if a country has many prisoners, that is a sign of a bad leadership,” he added.
Horrid conditions inside prison
Antalan described the horrid conditions inside the NBP, particularly at the Reception Diagnostic Center (RDC) where newly-convicted prisoners temporarily stay when they arrive. Dozens of prisoners sharing one tiny cell, and taking five-hours shifts sleeping on a shared cot, badly-maintained facilities and equipment and inadequate medical services, and even a lack of basic necessities such as water and electricity in certain prisons. As a result, diseases abound and many prisoners get sick.
Antalan also said corruption in NBP is widespread, and said one of the 10 fell victim to a prison guard who even staved off a certain amount from his transportation money given by the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor).
A mixture of happiness and sadness
Matricio said he felt a mixture of happiness and sadness upon his release and stepping out of prison a free man.
“I am happy because we were freed, but it comes with sadness, because many still remain, and they should also be released,” he said.
Sonny Marbela, who was convicted during the term of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and served 16 years inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), echoed Matricio’s statement, and noted that most of the political prisoners released were from farmers’ groups.
Solangon agreed with Matricio and Marbela’s statements, adding that by his reckoning there were about 72 prisons around the country with political prisoners.