June 18, 2010

Arrest Arroyo; free political prisoners!

Soon-to-be Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III asks for understanding that he is no “superman” and should be given at least three years to make good on his campaign promises. Some of those promises will soon come up against the reality that nothing short of a systems overhaul is required if the Aquino presidency is to make a difference. Yet two items can be immediately addressed -- that is, within the first 100 days – if Mr. Aquino sets his mind to prioritize them.

Mr. Aquino should have no qualms, no second thoughts, about setting into motion the arrest and prosecution of outgoing President Gloria Arroyo for plunder and gross human rights violations. After all, he was part of the group of Opposition congressmen who filed impeachment charges against Mrs. Arroyo twice. His mother, former President Cory, apart from calling for Mrs. Arroyo to resign, joined the march to the House of Representatives to push for Mrs. Arroyo’s impeachment.

Indeed, Noynoy’s anti-Arroyo, “good vs evil” campaign line won him a lot of votes while his accusation that his then closest rival, Sen. Manny Villar, had a secret, quid-pro-quo arrangement with Mrs. Arroyo may have caused Mr. Villar to slide down ignominiously to third place in the final votes tally.

It is to be expected that Mrs. Arroyo and her cohorts-in-crime will put up one hell of a political and legal fight (which is why she sought some kind of a political platform as a member of Congress). Yet Mr. Aquino can take heart in the fact that while die-hard fans and loyalists of President Estrada tried (but failed) to barricade his residence to prevent his arrest and even mounted a copycat “people power” siege of the presidential palace when he was already detained, it is unlikely that such a demonstration of residual popular support will take place once Mrs. Arroyo is served a warrant of arrest.

On the contrary, Mr. Aquino will earn plaudits, locally and internationally, and make his indelible mark in history if he is able to prove his determination to seek justice for all the victims of the corrupt and abusive Arroyo regime. He will in effect, dramatically break the reign of impunity for unspeakable crimes against the people and against humanity committed by high government officials, state functionaries and security forces under the Arroyo regime.

Definitely, the prosecution of Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal for plunder, extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights violations and electoral fraud should be on top of the Aquino administration's priorities. But equally urgent in terms of concretely and swiftly rendering justice to the victims is the immediate release of the hundreds who have been wrongly charged, arrested and are currently still languishing in jail on trumped-up criminal charges that are actually politically-motivated.

As of March 31 2010, there are 344 political prisoners documented by human rights organization, Karapatan, of whom 317 were arrested under Arroyo regime, 59 of whom are women and six are minors.

These include the Morong 43, whose illegal arrest, torture and detention are well-documented, publicized and widely condemned here and abroad.

The release of political prisoners will send a clear signal that Mr. Aquino has an understanding of the underpinnings of social strife and dissent in social injustice and political repression.

It will also show that Mr. Aquino wishes to clear the way for the resumption of formal peace talks with the revolutionary forces represented by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and lay the ground for achieving a just and lasting peace.

The recently published diary and letters of Angie Ipong, Garden Behind Bars, give a face to the festering issue of political prisoners. It tells the story of a 65-year-old church worker and veteran social activist who has been jailed at the Pagadian Provincial Jail for more than five years.

Ms. Ipong tells of her ordeal at the hands of the military men who arrested her on March 8, 2005. She was giving a seminar to farmers and women leaders on the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CAHRIHL), one of the landmark bilateral agreements reached in the government-NDFP peace talks.

She was missing for 13 days during which time she underwent torture while undergoing interrogation. She began a hunger strike from day one of her illegal arrest to force her captors to surface her and allow her to have access to her lawyer.

Beyond the grim and painful account of the inhumane treatment accorded her by the military, Ms. Ipong tells the reader about her background as a young peasant girl; how her parents struggled to eke out a living and put her through school; how she graduated with honors despite her socio-economic disadvantages; how she became a founder of the Missionaries Society of the Philippines and committed herself to church-based social action; and how later she became a political activist helping to uplift the peasantry.

As the daughter of farmers dispossessed of their small plot of land by poverty and indebtedness and thereby relegated to being tenants in their own land, she realized at a young age the meaning of class differences and social inequity. She also learned the virtue of hard work, of cooperative relations with her siblings and other poor families in her community and the altruistic way of life as a social justice worker.

In due time, she was introduced to the theology of liberation (originating from and popularized by progressives from the Latin American catholic church) and thereafter learned about the larger, more fundamental problems of Philippine society and the need for more thoroughgoing structural reforms.

She lost her husband, a devoted church worker and committed activist like her, in the sinking of the MV Cassandra but she found the strength to continue her work while raising their young daughter.

In prison, instead of succumbing to despair, loneliness, boredom and various illnesses that a crowded, unhealthy environment breeds, Angie spent her time turning a barren piece of land within the jail compound into a bountiful garden of vegetables and medicinal herbs that augmented the meager diet provided by the jail authorities. She also introduced income-generating projects to teach the value of work as well as meet some of the detainees’ material needs.

Most of all, she organized the inmates and instituted a system of meetings where they aired out and resolved grievances, discussed tasks and projects, and reflected on biblical passages and other articles from which they extracted lessons applicable to their lives and current situation in jail.

In this way, good values could be taught to the prisoners, many of them youngsters, who had become petty criminals or were accused of petty crimes as a consequence of poverty, the lack of opportunities and a faulty justice system.

Today, Angie is a model prisoner so much so that jail authorities acknowledge her contributions to improving jail conditions. Several cases against her have been dismissed but more have been filed since. Surely she deserves her freedom under a new dispensation that was put to power on the hope of meaningful change and the rendering of due justice to victims of the Arroyo nightmare. #

*Published in Business World
18-19 June 2010


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