March 20, 2009

The bigger picture

The headline of a widely circulated broadsheet screams, “Nicole recants, clears Smith”. For the first time, the face of the young Filipina raped by a US marine, who used the pseudonym Nicole to hide her real identity, is published in the front page with the caption “The Unveiling, Unmaking of Nicole”. The temptation to sensationalize the purported recantation; to accept it hook, line and sinker; and to thereafter condemn Nicole is so strong, many have succumbed to it.

Nicole is disparaged and scorned for either taking almost everyone, including a court of law, for a ride crying “Rape!” Or for changing her story and allowing herself to appear as the stereotypical slut and gold digger, out to hook an American soldier that the defense lawyers had tried to do during trial but failed.

Not a few are disappointed and disheartened. While they do not condemn her for caving in to tremendous pressure from all sides to give up the fight for justice, they secretly wish that she had been made of sterner stuff. At least, that she had some remaining sense of decency not to have reportedly flown off to the United States with a new-found American boyfriend, in order to pursue the foolhardy dream of the colonial-minded.

As for Smith’s lawyer, Atty. Jose Justiniano, what is important is not Nicole’s credibility nor reputation, nor the public’s affront at this distasteful turn of events, only that she has retracted critical parts of her earlier testimony, sufficient to jeopardize the legal victory she had attained in a lower court. The wily lawyer that he is, Mr. Justiniano knows that the defense has successfully thrown a monkey wrench into the overall equation, no matter that the predominant legal opinion is that Nicole’s latest affidavit is no better than a scrap of paper.

We leave it to the legal experts to explain why Nicole’s “recantation” is worthless going by the rules of court and the law on evidence applicable in this case. What must be exposed are the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of the affidavit that render it totally lacking in credibility despite the claims of the victim’s mother that Nicole signed it of her own free will and that it is not an out-of-court settlement.

Atty. Evalyn Ursua , Nicole’s dismissed lawyer, says that the affidavit has all the hallmarks of something the defense lawyers cooked up. For one it contains the line of defense used unsuccessfully by Smith at his trial. Moreover, going by what she knew about her client in the three years that she counseled her, Ms. Ursua says that the affidavit does not “sound” like Nicole at all. And why did it have to be one of the lawyers in the law firm that is defending Smith, to notarize the document? Nicole herself is conveniently unavailable to either corroborate or refute the contents of the affidavit.

Those who easily condemn Nicole forget what she has been up against in pursuing the rape case against US Marine Smith. They forget that Smith was fully backed by his government, the superpower USA. This is the same superpower that has ignored worldwide protests and has single-mindedly, as well as violently, imposed its imperial designs on sovereign countries. It is the same US government that has threatened sovereign states with economic sanctions to dissuade them from ratifying the Rome Statute. In so doing, US troops and civilian personnel are exempted from prosecution by the International Criminal Court for violations of human rights and international law.

Even worse, Nicole has had to contend with the Philippine government, her government, which has consistently been more concerned with not offending, but rather sucking up to, the US government, than defending its own citizen's rights.

Sec. Gonzales and his prosecutors have used the “recantation” to further assail the credibility of their own client, the person they are duty-bound to stand by considering that the criminal justice system from the police to the fiscals to the trial judge all found that the evidence presented proved Nicole to have been raped by Smith.

Recall how Sec. Gonzales badgered and threatened the fiscal in Olongapo and later, in Makati, with administrative sanctions when they stood their ground in finding that all four US servicemen who were at the scene of the crime be indicted. Recall how disparaging Mr. Gonzales was about Nicole.

See how the public prosecutors showed little understanding much less sympathy for the plight of Nicole then and now. Remember how Nicole’s mother then made public her disgust that the government prosecutors were pushing for an out-of-court settlement rather than a conviction.

In this light, Nicole's "retraction" is hardly worth considering. Nicole is clearly the victim twice-over: she was raped by US marine Smith and now she has somehow been duped to be a party to her own undoing by Smith’s lawyers with the collusion of the US and Philippine governments.

So what is the game plan here? First, the rape conviction. To have it overturned by the Court of Appeals by means of Nicole’s much-ballyhooed “recantation”, if not legally, then extra legally, by shaping the public’s and the justices’ opinion that there is now, at the minimum, doubt as to the guilt of Smith.

The fish is caught by the mouth. Sec. Ermita says that if Smith is set free then the issue of custody is rendered moot. The Arroyo regime will no longer have to engage in negotiations for custody and be subjected to the indignity of being ignored by the US government. He predicts that calls for abrogation of the VFA will loose steam.

Again, this regime and US foreign policymakers who have not changed gears despite US President Obama’s I-am-the-darling-of-the-American-people and I-am-the-friend-of-the-world’s peoples pose, grossly underestimate how the lesson in the Nicole rape case is getting hammered, little by little, into the Filipino people’s consciousness. That is, with the VFA, Filipinos are treated as second class citizens in their own country, no different from the victims of American soldiers’ abuse when the US bases were still around.

US Ambassador Kenney will do a song-and-dance number, kiss babies, hand over reward money to Abu Sayyaf bounty hunters and lecture the Philippines ever so sweetly about how democratic elections should take place in the grand tradition of the US of A. But she, as the principal representative of an overweening, aggressive Superpower out to corner the best business deals and the world’s resources, will deny Nicole and other Filipino victims of crimes perpetrated by the US armed forces their due justice.

Outrage as to how the Arroyo government sells out the country’s sovereignty and the people’s rights to a former colonizer, acting now as neocolonizer, will accumulate over time, to an extent and to a degree, much more than the outrage at the abuse inflicted on this unfortunate individual Filipino who goes by the name Nicole.#

March 12, 2009

Justice for Rebelyn

Bambi Santos was an activist, a full-time staff member of the national democratic alliance, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN). She was in charge of many things foremost of which was mobilizing artists to contribute to the cultural work attendant to the political mass campaigns that BAYAN led. She was also a budding creative writer who graduated with a journalism degree from an exclusive all-women college, the only child of science professionals who had dedicated all their lives to government service.

She was killed at the age of twenty-seven, in what military authorities said was an encounter. Witnesses contend however that there was a raid on a farmer’s hut where Bambi was resting with several companions. She was hit in the leg and thereafter allowed to bleed to death. She was unarmed. She had gone on a leave of absence from BAYAN to do political immersion among poor peasants in Mindanao. She had planned to write stories and poems about her experiences.

I had the difficult task of informing her family about her death and of traveling all the way to Pagadian City to retrieve her remains and bring it back to Manila. She died at the height of the campaign to oust President Joseph Estrada and after we had grieved for her and buried her, we just had to tell ourselves that justice would come with the change of government.

But that didn’t happen. We did what we could to try to determine who were the military officials involved in the raid but they had been quickly reassigned and we faced a blank wall regarding their whereabouts. We filed a case with the Commission on Human Rights; we even filed a case with the Joint Monitoring Committee of the Negotiating Panels for the government-National Democratic Front peace negotiations.

Impunity is still the name of the game in this country ruled by the elite classes of big landlords, big traders and local partners of multinational corporations as well as several generations of politicians who make politics and government one big, profitable business as well.

They craft the socio-economic policies that fuel armed revolution and political dissent. They direct the counter-insurgency campaigns that engender such gross human rights violations. They authorize and then protect from prosecution and punishment the state forces and paramilitary death squads that do the dirty work of killing the likes of Bambi Santos.

Now another young woman has fallen victim to state terror. Twenty-year-old Rebelyn Pitao had just embarked on a career as a teacher. But unlike other eager, aspiring mentors, Rebelyn happened to be the daughter of “Kumander Parago,” legendary NPA leader operating in Southern Mindanao.

That was her only “crime”: to be the daughter of the revolutionary nemesis of the government’s armed forces in that area, and sister to a young man who recently joined the NPA after an attempt on his life and in the wake of the extra-judicial killing (EJK) of his uncle, Pitao’s brother, by suspected military assassins.

The Pitao family believes that Rebelyn was mercilessly targeted by the intelligence officers of the army’s 10th Infantry Division, to break the fighting spirit of “Kumander Parago” and his “red fighters” and to instill fear in the hearts of the peasant families that give them succor and support. Beyond the actual killers (who by all indications had brutalized and raped Rebelyn before finishing her off) the Pitao family holds the Arroyo regime accountable, because of its murderous counter-insurgency programs, Oplan Bantay Laya I and II (OBL).

OBL has already victimized hundreds of unarmed activists, church people and professionals suspected to be supporters or sympathizers of the CPP-NPA. It continues to wreak a wide swathe of death, destruction and displacement especially among peasant communities considered to be rebel strongholds. This despite a reported decline in the number of EJKs since the latter part of 20007, after the Arroyo regime’s human rights record was roundly denounced and domestic and international pressure was brought to bear on the regime.

A more sinister but no less plausible motivation and planned scenario by the brains behind Rebelyn’s cold-blooded murder is to provoke a political situation that would prevent the possible resumption of the formal peace talks between the government and the NDFP.

This plausible explanation as to why and how this condemnable killing of Pitao’s daughter has taken place stands on the persistence of strong, if not dominant, hawkish voices in the Arroyo cabinet including that of Mrs Arroyo herself, Executive Secretary and former General Ermita and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales. They can not countenance a resumption of peace talks with the NDFP.

One possible objective of Rebelyn’s heartless killing is to provoke the NPA to go on a “rampage” and commit alleged atrocities that can then be used to justify the regime’s renewed hard-line position and its withdrawal of recent overtures to talk peace with the communist-led armed movement.

Although such has not taken place and the CPP-NPA spokespersons have vowed such will not be their way to achieve justice for Rebelyn and her loved ones, the NDF’s chief negotiator, Luis Jalandoni, has said formal resumption of peace talks at this time has become untenable. For how can the NDF hold talks with the government in the face of such outrage?

De facto President Mrs. Gloria Arroyo was reported to have “ordered” government human rights agencies to investigate Rebelyn’s murder. The military spokesperson in Davao worried out loud about the bad press the military was getting. He was not so much alarmed by Rebelyn’s gruesome murder but that this will again be blamed on the military_and with good reason.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde, a low-ranking buffoon who likely got his current top position as a reward for honing his practice of kissing ass into a fine art, says that if the NDF insists on blaming Mrs. Arroyo and General Ermita for Rebelyn’s death then they can also pin down Luis Jalandoni and Jose Maria Sison for the killings of military and police by the NPA.

The CPP for its part announced that it has directed the NPA to arrest and bring before a “people’s court” several military suspects in the heinous crimes against Rebelyn Pitao. It identified the suspected perpetrators as Sgts. Adan Sulao and Ben Tipait of the AFP’s Military Intelligence Group XI, Cpl. Alvin Bitang of the Military Intelligence Battalion (MIB) of the Philippine Army’s 10th Infantry Division, and a certain Pedregosa, another intelligence agent.

We are not holding our breath in expectation that anything will come out of this government’s “investigations”. Little do we wonder now what kind of revolutionary justice the peasant masses in the countryside pin their hopes on. #

March 05, 2009

Jailing the innocent

A visit to the Manila City jail could be best described as depressing. It is not just the squalor of the surroundings and the stench of human congestion but the prevailing atmosphere of boredom and seeming hopelessness that can be overwhelming. Most of the inmates are there due to drug-related offenses and petty crimes but there also are the murderers, kidnappers and other dangerous criminals, all counting interminable days and nights in that jail within the larger jail we call Philippine society.

And then there is Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis, a sixty-something aberration in what most of us consider to be a necessary fixture in a conflict-ridden society_prison or some variation of it. If such jail conditions must be a living hell (or perhaps purgatory for those who can afford to bribe the jail guards and get much better accommodations) for the guilty (the truly guilty or those adjudged “guilty” because the Philippine justice system is an oxymoron in practice) how must it be for Ka Randy?

Mr. Echanis is an activist, an aging one maybe, but a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool activist who at some point in his life may have ventured into the grey area of what is legally allowed (remember fighting against the Marcos dictatorship left very few “legal” options) but who cannot be faulted for consistently, persistently and courageously taking up the cudgels for the poor and oppressed in this country.

As a young student activist of the First Quarter Storm era in the early 70s, then a freedom fighter through the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship, and now as deputy secretary-general of the alliance of peasant associations called Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), he has dedicated his life most especially to the social liberation of rural folk who to this day are no better than destitute, landless peasants in a vast landlord-dominated countryside.

Mr. Echanis played a major role in KMP and the party-list Anakpawis to push for a pro-farmer land reform law that that would replace the bogus Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) of the government. In addition to land reform, since 2002 he has been actively working for other socio-economic reforms through peace negotiations, as a member of the Reciprocal Working Committee on Socio-economic Reforms (RWC-SER) of the NDF negotiating panel, for which he was covered by safety and immunity guarantees earlier agreed upon by both parties.

This smiling, mild-mannered and physically-battered man is currently stewing in jail while being tried for multiple murders. These crimes allegedly took place in 1984-85 in far-off Leyte province. At the time of the alleged crimes he was already stewing, since 1983, in the prisons of the Dictator Marcos; first under solitary confinement and incommunicado for a year in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, then another two years in Camp Adduru Regional Command 2 Stockade in Tuguegarao, Cagayan until his release in March 1986 with the downfall of the fascist regime.

His is the same trumped-up case for which the Arroyo regime had caused the arrest of Bayan Muna Congressman Satur Ocampo in December 2006 and on which the Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Mr. Ocampo be released. The case is now pending in the Supreme Court over the defense plea that it should be thrown out for gross violations of due process and the use of flagrantly false testimony in a clear case of political harassment and persecution.

Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis’ arrest and continuing detention is glaring proof of the Arroyo regime’s abuse of state power to seal off all non-violent avenues for basic social reform including the peace negotiations. The clear and strong signal Malacañang continues to deliberately send is that it will not allow or even tolerate the pursuit of genuine pro-people, i.e. democratic and patriotic, reforms. The perfectly legitimate struggles of the people will be brutally suppressed no matter that these are through legal and peaceful means.

Victims of arbitrary arrest or of outright abduction and torture by military and police forces recently held a dialogue with Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Leila de Lima. Ms. De Lima expressed alarm at the growing trend whereby the authorities deliberately and wrongfully utilize the criminal justice system_meaning the security forces, the prosecutors and the courts_in order to file baseless criminal charges, and then arresting and detaining indefinitely, hundreds of political and social activists.

It was pointed out that the Arroyo regime has in fact set up the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) under the National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales precisely to use so-called legal processes and the state’s legal machinery to pin down and neutralize those they sweepingly accuse to be “enemies of the state”.

Seen in this light, the incarceration of Ka Randy based on fabricated charges is another clear instance of the regime’s use of state terror to clamp down on dissent and perpetuate the status quo. Indeed, while the national and international outcry against extra-judicial killings has mercifully tempered (but not eradicated) the killing spree perpetrated by the Arroyo regime’s “death squads”, the wholesale filing of patently manufactured criminal cases, all of them non-bailable, against activists and their supporters must similarly be exposed and condemned.

If the Arroyo regime is allowed to continue down its hard-line, militarist path to eliminating armed conflicts, rather than addressing their underlying causes and seriously engaging in peace talks to arrive at a negotiated political settlement , more innocent Filipinos including the likes of Randall Echanis will fall victim to this doomed-to-fail but no less destructive policy.

Yet the status quo cannot hold forever. With the bursting of the bubbles of affluence and prosperity in the centers of monopoly capital, the Philippine’s chronic social, economic and political crisis is further exacerbated. The increasingly intolerable hardships of the Filipino toiling masses push them to seek alternatives to the current oppressive and exploitative system.

The ideals and programs that Ka Randy and others like him are fighting for will continue to resonate among our suffering people. Already his detention has inadvertently boosted his message, making it even clearer, more forceful and more far-reaching. #