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. #


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