Philippine jails

As Marcos government revives peace talks, political prisoners ‘hope in moderation’

Lian Buan

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As Marcos government revives peace talks, political prisoners ‘hope in moderation’

'BREAKTHROUGH MASS.' CBCP president Bishop Pablo Virgilio David celebrates mass inside a prison facility in Camp Bagong Diwa on January 16, 2024. Photo courtesy of BJMP/Kapatid

While political prisoners see an opening for hope after the government agreed to resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front, they have also tempered their expectations

MANILA, Philippines – Inside Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City, there is a five-story building that houses some of the country’s most prominent political prisoners. Three of them are consultants of the National Democratic Front (NDF), which is now in “exploratory discussions” to revive the peace talks with the Marcos government.

Adelberto Silva, Vicente Ladlad, and Rey Casambre, who are all in their 70s, lead the group of 26 political prisoners who occupy half of the right wing of the fourth floor: a mix of mass organizers and trade unionists, many of them jailed during the Duterte government’s crackdown on dissent.

After President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to revive the protracted peace talks with communist rebels, the political prisoners see an opening for hope but “in moderation.” One of the early demands – the softer term is “concern” in the precarious stage of exploratory talks – of the NDF is the release of political prisoners. There are 801 nationwide, 90 were arrested during the time of Marcos Jr.

Dito sa preso, ang emosyon namin katamtaman lang (Here in prison, our emotions are just right),” said Silva in a meeting inside their compound with Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), as relayed by prisoners rights group Kapatid which organized the meet.

Kapatid said in a statement that David’s visit and mass on Tuesday, January 16, was a “breakthrough mass inside a police camp originally built during the Martial Law regime of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos as a political prison.” It was the first Catholic Mass officiated by a bishop there, the group said.

“We hope the peace negotiation advances and that important results will materialize,” Kapatid quoted David as saying. David is known for being outspoken about human rights abuses particularly in Duterte’s drug war which left thousands killed. He was prosecuted for sedition in 2019.

“Never give up hope,” David said, noting how prisoners “found a way to hope in moderation.”

Life in the ‘showcase prison’

Hindi puwedeng maging 100% na malungkot kasi iyon ay depression, pero hindi naman puwedeng masaya kasi nakakulong ka (You cannot be 100% sad because that would lead to depression, but you can’t be happy because you’re in jail),” said Joel Demate,

Demate is part of the”Human Rights (HR) 7,” the seven activists who were arrested during Human Rights Day in 2020. He is one of the four who remain in detention.

Demate and the case of the HR 7, who were arrested on the power of a search warrant issued by a faraway judge, was among the pressure points that led the Supreme Court to remove the power of Metro Manila judges to issue search warrants outside their jurisdiction.

At Camp Bagong Diwa, Demate said prisoners enjoy a “sunning” time window from 6 am to 9 am, when they can go to the basketball court or the fifth floor rooftop which is painted pink, with artificial grass, a snack bar, and billiard and table tennis tables.

They spend the rest of the day in their designated wings where each cell is just a little wider than a person with outstretched arms, and twice as long. That small cell, with its double deckers, can house four to eight persons deprived of liberty (PDLs).

While it’s still way below United Nations standards, the cells at Metro Manila District Jail Annex 4 (MMDJ-4,) at Camp Bagong Diwa is way better than most. The nationwide congestion rate is at 357%, which means an average of 35 PDLs share a cell meant only for 10.

That’s why they call it the showcase prison.

Nakakaluwag naman, pero dumaan na ito sa laban (We’re getting by fine, but this is the product of struggle),” said Demate. What he means is that the comforts they enjoy was something they fought for over the years. Silva said they used to be padlocked in their cells overnight, which they argued posed danger in cases of emergency. Silva said they convinced jail officials to not padlock elderly political prisoners. They also distributed the elderly in other cells, so that other prisoners can also benefit.

Now, each cell can have a cooker if they can, mostly gifts from visitors. They can bring in ingredients for healthy food. Those without these “luxuries” rely on the rationed food, with a daly budget of only P70 per PDL, which is sometimes insufficient and tastes bland. Others share what they have.

May sistemang mabuhay sa antas ng rancho dahil sa suporta ng pamilya (We have a system to live within the means of rationed food because of our families’ support),” said Silva.

Their infirmary has no doctor on call. If they need to be brought to a hospital, they need to secure a court order, and the hospital has to be the nearest public hospital, regardless of whether it is well-equipped to address their medical condition. Under this policy, when you have a medical emergency, you have to call a lawyer first, not a doctor. A judge has to decide on your health needs even before a medical diagnosis.

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Peace talks

Silva, Ladlad, and Casambre were also among the NDF consultants designated as terrorists under the feared anti-terror law. A Duterte enactment, this law added the solely executive power of designating a person or a group as a terrorist without having to go to court. The process is done in secret, without opportunity for defense. The effect is freezing of assets and the public labeling.

“Sooner or later, the government will find that peace talks is the more palatable option,” said Casambre.

Ladlad called the exploratory discussions a “significant development for Marcos because he reversed the position of Duterte to only have peace talks on the local level.”

They have tempered their expectations that the peace talks can facilitate their freedom, as Ladlad noted the complications of an amnesty. Ladlad said that in the past, being granted amnesty meant you admit to a political offense like subversion. But because activists are now charged with common crimes like murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives, which they deny, “How do you admit when political belief is now criminalized?”

Silva said the peace talks is “for the common gain of the freedom to speak.” Demate said he has more hope “for the mass movement, because they help put pressure on the government to act.”

Hearings for these cases are slow; prosecution presentation can go on for years, and charges add up. “Kung justice system lang, mabagal (The justice system alone is slow),” said Demate.

“We are sincere” in the peace talks, said Silva.

Within the Marcos government, there are those who are opposed to the revival of peace negotiations with communist rebels, among them Vice President Sara Duterte who called it “an agreement with the devil,

Amid these loud voices, Casambre expressed hope that “Marcos stays the course.” –

1 comment

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  1. ET

    It is realistic to be hopeful but in “moderation.” Unless the “Whole of Society” is truly, sincerely, realistically, competently, and effectively applied to start from the “exploratory talks” till the actual peace talks, then everything is just “For Show Only” to the Filipino People.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.