Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the wee hours of the morning have been filled not with calmness but with anxiety as government critics fear they may be the next targets of illegal arrests and even graver rights abuses.
By GABRYELLE DUMALAG, ELLA LAGUNA, and LUISA SANDOVAL
First of two parts
Read the second part of this series via our mirror site: Life Behind Bars: How women political prisoners are treated under the Duterte administration
MANILA – “We are not terrorists. We are activists. We just want to help our fellow women.”
Cora Agovida can still remember shouting these words when she saw the entire neighborhood witnessing their unlawful arrest back in 2019. She and husband Michael Bartolome were among those arrested in what appeared to be a crackdown on activists that stemmed from a search warrant factory.
They were later freed in 2021, with a Manila court saying that state prosecutors failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt their ownership and possession of firearms, ammunition, and explosives. Their lives, however, will never be the same again.
According to the report of the rights group Karapatan, almost 70 percent of political persons deprived of liberty (PDL) were arrested during the Duterte administration, with 117 of them women — the highest recorded number since the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship.
In a statement, Karapatan condemned the Duterte administration for its “harmful and sexist rhetoric” against women dissenters in 2020 that led to human rights violations and judicial harassment.
“The Duterte administration’s contempt for women human rights defenders, both publicly-known personalities such as journalist Maria Ressa and Senator Leila de Lima and those who work in communities, are being shown through its harmful and sexist rhetoric, including red-tagging, and through judicial harassment by way of trumped-up charges. We call on all women who uphold women’s rights and human rights to resist these attempts to silence women and derail their work for social justice and human rights issues,” said Karapatan.
Before Agovida’s arrest, she led various discussions on violence against women and children in their community. But in the wee hours of Oct. 21, 2019, about 20 armed police officers barged into their home. While they were being arrested, their two children then aged two and 10 were sent outside.
“We were handcuffed while we were being made to lie on our stomachs. We were told not to look back. I asked what we did wrong. But we were told to just follow them,” Agovida, a community organizer of the women’s group Gabriela, said.
Journalists, labor organizers not spared
Also arrested using the questionable search warrants issued by Quezon City Judge Cecilyn-Burgos Villavert were journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparrago. Both, too, decried that police officers planted the evidence in their rented apartment – a gun and a grenade, which they supposedly found in their bedroom.
“I thought to myself that I was now reeling from the experience of those I have written about. It looks like a script that is aimed at incapacitating you. You cannot see your surroundings and it took an hour before we were finally presented with a warrant,” Salem said in Filipino.
The police later presented the gun to them, asking Salem and Esparrago if they had a permit for the firearm to which Salem responded “I told them there was none because it belongs to them. How are we going to have a permit for those?”
Through Judge Cecilia Burgos-Villavert’s warrant factory, human rights groups assailed how it aided the arrest of at least 76 individuals, which included human rights defenders, unionists, peace consultants, peasant organizers, and journalists. The charges against them are being dismissed by co-equal courts as the warrants used lacked definiteness particularity, or the evidence presented were inadmissible.
Last March 2021, Villavert and Manila Regional Trial Court First Vice Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa issued search warrants leading to the deaths of nine activists and progressives and arrests of six in Southern Tagalog.
Among the victims, one woman, Chai Lemita Evangelista of farmers group UMALPAS KA, was killed and two women, Bayan Laguna spokesperson Elizabeth “Mags” Camoral and paralegal Nimfa Lanzanas, were arrested.
The court recently dismissed the charges against Lanzanas.
Dela Rosa who issued at least three warrants for the ‘Bloody Sunday’ operations was appointed in March as the new Court of Appeals (CA) associate justice by President Duterte. His appointment coincided with the anniversary of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre.
Harassment, red-tagging continue behind bars
The political persecution that led to their arrests and consequent detention did not end there, unfortunately. Agovida said that she was unjustly treated as a political prisoner, with cell leaders being told not to talk to her.
“They really wanted to isolate us,” she said.
In her first month as a political detainee, Agovida was prevented from going out her cell. She was eventually allowed to step out of her cell but she needed to have a buddy. Still, she was kept from joining extracurricular activities in the facility.
Agovida was elected as the cell paralegal as a part of her extracurricular activity. The BJMP officials found out and wanted her out of the post. But her fellow inmates stood by their decision as they elected her.
She also experienced red-tagging inside the city jail.
According to Agovida, the jail guards once played a video of the National Task Force to End Local Communist and Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) that red-tagged progressive organizations such as women’s group Gabriela as a front organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
“We criticized this. I told them that the safety of political prisoners was compromised because of that video. What if something bad will happen to us because of such baseless accusation?” she said.
For the Samahan ng mga Ex-detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDA), they found it not surprising that there were cases against political prisoners that led to their conviction because it was easy for law enforcers to plant pieces of evidence.
Looking into the Philippine Constitution and its provisions in highlighting the people’s right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, the police operations against Agovida, Salem and Rosales were not properly executed.
Meanwhile, Fides Lim, spokesperson of Kapatid, a support organization of families and friends of political prisoners in the Philippines, said that activists are commonly charged with petty crimes to dehumanize and stigmatize them as common criminals. It is also strategic, she added, that illegal possession of explosives is a non-bailable offense that will ensure that they are behind bars as their cases grind ever so slowly.
Another woman political prisoner, Rowena Rosales, a former labor organizer of government workers group Courage, she and her husband Oliver was also charged with arson, multiple attempted murder, and syndicated arson.
Rosales is still behind bars as of this writing.
Agovida and Salem, on the other hand, have continued to carry on to fight for the release of other activists and government critics who have been put behind bars.
Now under another Marcos presidency, fighting against injustice and an oppressive system has become even more urgent.
“Total impunity is what we could expect,” she added.
For Lim, on the other hand, she said, “no country is really free if there is a single political prisoner behind bars.” (RTS, JJE, RVO)
This report is published as part of the special projects journalism class of the authors at the University of the Philippines – Diliman.