By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
(UPDATED: July 22, 2023; 8:40 a.m.) MANILA – It has been three months since Alexa Pacalda, a youth organizer and former campus journalist, was transferred to the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City. Pacalda is among the nine women political prisoners who were convicted by the court for trumped-up charges in March this year. She was transferred to the facility after her conviction.
According to data from human rights group Karapatan, 157 out of 778 political prisoners in the Philippines are women.
On June 20, members of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD) and participants of the Feminist Legal Theory and Practice Training from different countries including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Myanmar, Nepal and Malaysia, visited women political prisoners in CIW together with women’s group Gabriela. The women political prisoners shared their stories on how they ended up in prison.
“Poverty, lack of jobs and land have pushed us to fight for what is right. And for that, the government treated us as enemies, filed trumped-up charges against us and locked us in prison,” the women political prisoners said, presenting their stories through a performance.
They said that some of them, mostly activists and farmers in the countryside, are facing life imprisonment over trumped-up charges and evidence that were manufactured or planted. Pacalda for one is facing a sentence of up to 10 years of imprisonment for illegal possession of firearms and explosives and another 20-40 years for allegedly violating a law on explosives.
But even with their conviction, the women political prisoners continue to fight for justice as they appealed their sentence.
“I was a paralegal and was also assisting political prisoners in the province of Quezon. Now I am a political prisoner for a crime I did not commit,” 27-year old Pacalda told the participants. She said her case is currently on appeal.
Pacalda said that illegal possession of firearms and explosives are the most common trumped up charges filed against activists in the Philippines. “Some were charged with murder and homicide for killing people they never even met,” Pacalda added.
Pacalda was arrested on Sept. 14, 2019 during a consultation with farmers who are victims of intense militarization in barangay Magsaysay, General Luna. She was jailed at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Quezon before she was transferred to CIW.
Meanwhile, Teresita Abarratigue, 54, a peasant organizer in Samar was charged with murder and facing life imprisonment. She has been in prison for 11 years. What’s worse is that her daughter and son-in-law were also arrested for trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives and were detained in Samar Provincial Jail in 2013.
She said she appealed her case and is now with the Supreme Court while her daughter and son-in-law’s case is still ongoing.
On Oct. 14, 2014, Marilyn Magpatoc was sentenced to 19 to 21 years of imprisonment for illegal possession of firearms and explosives. She was arrested by the military in a far-flung village in Davao Occidental where a strong anti-mining campaign was ongoing. She said that coincidentally, she was in the area when the military came and raided offices of mass organizations there.
She was alleged to be a member of the New People’s Army (NPA) and because she was labeled as such, she said she was treated differently. When she was committed at the Davao Prison and Penal Farm (former Davao Penal Colony), Magpatoc said that she was detained with male prisoners. Although she was alone in her cell, Magpatoc said that she still feared for her life. She described her days spent in that cell as the “worst days of her life.”
“I feared for my life thinking that I might get a disease there and die because of it. The distance of the female jail from the male jail too is quite far. It’s like a 30 minute ride from the male jail,” she said during her sharing.
When she was transferred to CIW, she said she was also put in isolation without explanation. She lamented that prisoners are put in isolation if they commit any prison violation. “I did not commit anything, but I was in isolation for a month. It was a torture, a dreadful experience,” Magpatoc shared.
Life in prison
Life in prison for many political prisoners continues. For one, these political prisoners in CIW were able to finish junior high school and are currently enrolled in senior high school. Some are also enrolled in vocational courses such as baking, jewelry making and handicrafts and even participated in religious activities.
They sell their finished products to visitors or even outside prison through the help of groups supporting political prisoners.
Although activities inside the CIW keep them busy, they still think of their families who are not able to visit them because of the distance.
Prescilla, not her real name, is a farmer in Samar who was charged with double murder filed by the military. She is facing a double life sentence. She denied the military’s allegation and said that the alleged murder happened eight years ago. She has been in prison for 15 years.
Because of the distance, Prescilla said she has not been visited by her family. But they still have communication because prisoners are allowed to have a phone call for three minutes, three times a week.
Magpatoc meanwhile was last visited by her family in 2019. She said the Philippines must observe the Bangkok Rules or the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders.
Magpatoc has four children. Her youngest is 13 years old and was only a toddler when she was arrested.
According to the Bangkok Rules, “women prisoners shall be given the maximum possible opportunity and facilities to meet with their children, when it is in the best interests of the children and when public safety is not compromised.”
Magpatoc is hopeful that she will also reclaim her freedom through Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA).
Under Republic Act No. 10592 or GCTA Law, a Person Deprived of Liberty (PDL) may be granted an early release if they maintain a good behavior and actively participate in programmes and activities inside the prison. Magpatoc said that with GTCA, she hopes to be released in the next three years.
“That is why I do my best in all activities here so I can apply for GCTA and be with my family again,” she said.
Prescilla also hopes the same especially that she is feeling a lump on her breast that concerns her. “The doctor said I needed a biopsy,” she said. She also said that there is no update in her appeal which was filed at the Supreme Court in 2020.
Prescilla and Magpatoc both said that if they will be released from prison, they will still continue to fight for the people’s basic rights even if it has led to their unjust detention.
“We will still face the same problems when we get out of prison. Landlessness, lack of jobs, there are still Filipinos that are still poor so we will continue,” she said.
APWLD’s regional coordinator, Misun Woo meanwhile expressed solidarity and thanked the women political prisoners for welcoming them and sharing their stories.
“We may be from different countries but our struggles are one,” she said.
Meanwhile, APWLD Feminist Law and Practice programme officer Sadia Afrin Khan said that it is alarming that attacks against activists, especially women human rights defenders, are relentless.
“The Philippines continues to be an unsafe place for women human rights defenders,” Khan said in a statement.
“Activists should not be in prison in the first place. They are dissenters who keep the governments in check and lead the fight for human rights. Political prisoners are a reminder that structural barriers remain in place and injustices prevail,” Khan said.
The APWLD as well as its training participants also urged the Philippine government to:
– Review and dismiss the trumped up charges against activists and release the political prisoners in the country;
– Follow the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders;
– Create proper living conditions for these prisoners and provide them proper health and medical support;
-Facilitate these women prisoners to contact their families, including their children, and their children’s guardians and legal representatives by all reasonable means.
“We continue to urge the Philippine government, and all other governments in the Asia-Pacific region to free all political prisoners and hold the human rights violators to account. As it is in any fight, international solidarity is a strong key in demanding accountability,” Khan added. (RTS, RVO)