“We need big mass actions to release our loved ones.”
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – “Tumanda ako sa kulungan (I got old in jail),” urban poor leader Evelyn Legaspi, 58, still laments the five years she spent in jail.
She was arrested in 2012 and detained for five years on false charges of five counts each of murder and frustrated murder, supposedly committed by one “Anabelle Bueno.” In December 2016, the court finally recognized her for who she is and declared her innocent of the crimes.
As the saying goes, the truth had set her free.
“I was not freed by (President) Duterte…I was released because I proved that I was never ‘Anabelle Bueno,’” she said.
Looking back, Legaspi said, she and other detainees welcomed the President’s promise last year to free all political prisoners. But like the justice system, such promise took too long, too little, and for some, too late.
Recently, Duterte granted pardon to 10 political detainees convicted of false charges. Human rights group Karapatan said political prisoners now stand at 392 – a number that has not gone down even with the releases, as illegal arrests and arbitrary detention continue under the Duterte administration.
At a gathering, Legaspi joined other former political prisoners and in the call for freedom for their colleagues who remain in detention. The event dubbed “Remember. Resist,” held on July 8 in Quezon City, gathered families of current detainees, relatives of victims of enforced disappearances and politically-motivated and drug-related extrajudicial killings.
Injustice for both detainees and families
Whether detained for only a day or for over a decade, the injustice remains, as one is deprived of freedom because of false charges. The injustice and hardship extends to the detainee’s family.
Nona Andaya-Castillo, a breastfeeding advocate and wife of National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultant Ferdinand Castillo, has gone through different sorts of stress and difficulties caused by her husband’s detention in the past five months, the least of which was lugging heavy bags of vegetables across an overpass to get to the jail. But she hesitated to speak at the gathering about her family’s burdens.
“When I heard that there were those who were detained for 32 years, I felt embarrassed,” she said. Most of the newly-released political detainees present were convicted of trumped-up charges and incarcerated for at least 10 years, while her husband was arrested only in February. He is now detained at the Special Intensive Care Area-1 (SICA-1) inside Camp Bagong Diwa, in Taguig City.
“At least my husband was not tortured,” she said, as she sympathized with relatives of those who were disappeared or killed under past administrations.
“But it does not mean that the state has become compassionate.” Castillo recalled that, at about the time her husband was arrested, there were 10 others arrested and tortured, and more than 30 peasants and indigenous peoples killed.
“We need big mass actions to release our loved ones,” Castillo said.
Aside from Castillo, four other NDFP peace consultants remain in detention: Leopoldo Caloza and Eduardo Sarmiento who had been falsely convicted and are now in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa city; Promencio Cortez, who was arrested in February and is detained at the Ilocos Sur provincial jail; and Rommel Salinas, who was arrested in May and is detained at the Ozamiz City police station in Misamis Occidental.
Mothers of political detainees
Ligaya Cruz, a Dumagat, came all the way from Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Rizal. Her son, Eddie Cruz is detained in SICA-1 in Taguig city, incarcerated since 2010. On June 10, 2010, soldiers of the 16th infantry battalion arrived at his family’s hut and insisted on staying. Later that night, they heard gunshots. The soldiers then turned to Eddie and his two other relatives who were in the house, and tortured them to force them to falsely admit they are with the New People’s Army (NPA). The soldiers took Eddie to their camp and continued to torture him, to make him falsely admit ownership of a rifle. On June 15, he was brought to the prosecutor’s office in Taytay, Rizal and charged with a trumped-up case of illegal possession of firearms.
Ligaya and her husband, Cresencio, used to attend his court hearings, as well as some of the mass actions calling for the release of political prisoners. On June 17 this year, Cresencio died from a heart attack, but the court rejected Eddie’s plea to attend the funeral.
“Ang aking panawagan sa Presidente, ang aking anak ay siya’y palayain na…Nang mamatay ang kanyang ama, hindi pinayagan ng korteng makadalaw kahit isang oras (I call on the President to free my son…his father died and the court refused to let him visit for even just an hour),” Cruz cried at the gathering.
Another mother, Nimfa Lanzanas of Calamba, Laguna province, is calling for the release of her son Edward Lanzanas, an organizer of the peasant group Pagkakaisa at Ugnayan ng Magsasaka sa Laguna (Pumalag).
He was arrested on March 26, 2014 in Caloocan City, with Andrea Rosal, a fellow organizer who is also the daughter of Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal, the late spokesperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Lanzanas was accompanying then-seven-month-pregnant Rosal for a maternity check-up. The two were interrogated and tortured by their police captors.
Rosal later gave birth while in detention, but her baby died after two days. Her case caught media attention, which eventually led to her release.
Lanzanas, meanwhile, was detained for months without any charges. Nimfa said he has now been slapped with a kidnapping with murder case committed in 2007. Nimfa decried that the case alleged that her son committed the crime at age 17 when he had just graduated from high school. They had filed a motion at the Court of Appeals, but the case continues to drag on.
Detained husband, sweetheart
Another former detainee, Gloria Almonte, was there to call for the release of her husband, Dionisio Almonte, an organizer in Pagsanjan, Laguna. The couple were arrested in January 2014 while on their way to get medical treatment for Dionisio’s herniated disc. While Gloria was released on bail, Dionisio was charged with trumped-up criminal cases of kidnapping, triple murder, arson, and rebellion. He is detained at SICA-1 in Camp Bagong Diwa.
“They charge him with all kinds of cases. When one gets dismissed, another case is filed,” she lamented. Gloria brought with her an old mosquito net used by her husband. “Wherever he goes, he always brings one with him,” she said.
Lea Florencia, an urban poor organizer, brought up the case of her loved one, Francis Esponilla, a former staff of the urban poor group Kadamay. Esponilla was arrested with two others Romar Busania and Michael Gatchalian.
The three were arrested at a police checkpoint in Diadi, Nueva Vizcaya in May 2015. They are now detained in the district jail in Curipag, Solano, Nueva Vizcaya.
Getting one’s life back is not so easy
Also at the gathering was former political prisoner Ronald Lucero, who was convicted and detained for 17 years. He was all smiles at the forum, as he came with his son, Richmond, with whom he has been reunited after his release. Richmond was just a newborn when Ronald was arrested.
Legaspi, too, was finally reunited with her children, and now spends her time taking care of her grandchildren. However, she laments that going back to her work as leader of the group Kadamay-Southern Tagalog is not as easy.
She fears that her movement is still being monitored by state security forces because village officials installed a closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera right across her door. She now barely leaves the house for fear that something bad might happen to her.
“Andun pa rin, nakaka-stress pa rin (The stress remains),” she told Bulatlat.
“Nakalaya na ako pero nakakulong pa rin sa malawak na lipunan (I have been released from jail only to be imprisoned inside a larger prison, a repressive society),” she said.
Related story: Wife of detained NDFP consultant calls for husband’s release, justice for son’s death