Peace talks: Political prisoners?

Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino

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Peace talks: Political prisoners?
I am for peace, and I am for peace negotiations, but both sides must want it and want it so badly that no side sets preconditions for negotiations

The preliminary meeting between the Duterte representatives and the putative leaders of the CPP-NPA-NDF in Oslo is over, and they have two pages to show for it. “Duterte representatives” because at this time, they lack the legal capacity to represent the government of the Republic of the Philippines. Of course, the incumbent (outgoing) President can always ratify their acts to make them official acts of government.

One of the items on the agenda – often bandied about as a “confidence-building measure” – is the release of so-called “political prisoners.” Quoth the King of Siam: “Is a puzzlement!”  I am puzzled because there is no one in any jail in the Philippines who is a political prisoner. Detainees are charged with crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code or some special penal law; prisoners serving sentence are likewise behind bars for crimes statutorily defined. “Criminal political belief” is not one such crime. In fact, mere membership in the communist movement is no longer criminal; it has not been for a long time, after the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law!

And that is just where the disputed question arises. The CPP-NPA-NDF claim that the common crimes of which their comrades are charged merely lend legitimacy to what in fact is detention or incarceration for their political beliefs. But the terms of the proposition can be reversed.  

Is it not rather that these persons, charged with common crimes, now seek cover under the mantle of “political belief” to evade prosecution, trial, and penalty? Is it not as easy to characterize them as “political prisoners” to be able to get them outside the criminal justice system, even if they may have indeed committed common crimes?

Unless, of course, the theory now is that when one commits a common crime BECAUSE of one’s political beliefs, then the prisoner is a “political prisoner.” So murder ceases to be a common crime, and becomes a matter of political belief when a communist leader orders the execution of a suspected sympathizer of the military. But that gets us into very perilous ground, for political motive, allegiance, or ideological sympathy has never entered our books as an exempting or excusing, not even mitigating, circumstance.

PEACE TALKS. Incoming peace panels of the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) sign a joint statement on June 15, 2016 in Oslo, Norway to resume formal peace talks in July. Photo by Ayik Casilao

Undue haste

I personally feel very strongly about what appears to me to be the undue haste with which the incoming government is willing to concede this particular “confidence building measure,” because I was assigned to Aparri, Cagayan, at the height of NPA activity in that part of the province. I was a witness to the grief, consternation and helpless anguish of families roused in the dead of night while armed men, NPA cadres, tied the man of the house, dragged him from his house, took him into the woods, or across the river, never to be seen alive again! Sometimes, only his bloodstained clothes would be sent back through some unknown courier. Many families did not even have the consolation of burying the remains of their loved ones – because there were none to be found.  

Is the pain of those who lost loved ones, often in a manner so cruel and despicable, now to be forgotten or traded for the prospect of “peace”?

I am for peace, and I am for peace negotiations, but both sides must want it and want it so badly that no side sets preconditions for truly thoughtful and just negotiations.  

As for Joma Sison and Luis Jalandoni, do these people who have safely ensconced themselves in the Netherlands all these years really command every band, detachment or unit in the hills, hinterlands and mountain ranges where the NPAs roam? Does every NPA commander or group leader heed orders from the Netherlands? Are we even sure that there is some semblance of a chain of command?  

Dean Sed Candelaria of the Ateneo Law School tells me that when he was a member of the peace panel and news arrived in the Netherlands that Governor Rodolfo Aguinaldo of Cagayan had been gunned down by NPA hitmen, it apparently came as a surprise to JoMa and Jalandoni – who, only later, issued a “congratulatory message” to the assassins to keep the semblance that they were in command!

My take on this is simple: Let those presently incarcerated and detained be tried by our courts, as expeditiously as possible, so that it may be determined whether they have been held only for their political beliefs or because they have in fact transgressed our penal laws. –


The author is Dean, Graduate School of Law, San Beda College

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