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The Manila Times
Rep. Edcel C. Lagman’s
Weekly Thursday Column

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte vowed during his 2016 campaign to release all political prisoners “without preconditions as part of confidence-building measures.” Duterte broke his promise. Moreover, after he unilaterally suspended indefinitely the peace accord negotiation between the government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), some of the few political prisoners who were released as peace consultants were recommitted to prison where they are languishing with about 400 other political prisoners nationwide.

Political dissenters and activists should be accorded the widest latitude to express their views and pursue their advocacies within the libertarian limits of democratic space. As long as they do not, in fact, commit treason, rebellion, sedition, and other crimes, they should be allowed to enliven healthy discourse and peacefully advocate alternatives and options.

However, governments since antiquity and as recently as the Duterte hegemony have hunted down political dissenters and activists like common criminals. Their singular offense is engaging in non-violent campaigns for reforms, which are critical of the government’s dogma and the elite’s dominance.  

History attests that the reforms sought by dissenters have subsequently prevailed even as 11 former dissidents and political prisoners became Nobel Peace Prize laureates, a testimonial that dissent is not synonymous with violence. Out of the 11, nine were elected heads of state, justifying the release of political prisoners for them to compete in the political arena.

Political prisoners are usually indicted for trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives under Republic Act (RA) 10591, or the “Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act.” The offense is punishable by reclusion perpetua, thus making the right to bail illusory as the exception to bail in capital offenses “where evidence of guilt is strong” is ranged against the accused. The political prisoners’ continued incarceration is a cruel and abhorrent reality.

Firearms are planted and replanted to ensnare innocent victims and ensure their long imprisonment. Even Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra reported that in the government’s horrific war against drugs, the alibi of “nanlaban” for killing drug suspects, who allegedly used firearms to resist arrest, is feigned because the police made no effort to examine the “recovered” weapons, verify ownership, or conduct ballistic examinations.

R.A. 10591 must be amended to make it difficult for state agents to plant firearms by requiring the disclosure of the serial numbers of the firearms purportedly seized to foreclose recycling them as contrived evidence. The ballistic examination of said firearms must be mandatory and planting firearms as “evidence” severely punished.

Terrorist tagging further haunts political activists. The Anti-Terrorism Council recently designated the NDFP and 19 individuals, mostly peace consultants and peace panel members, as terrorists. It is ironic that after having been designated peace consultants, these individuals are now branded terrorists where the maximum penalty is also reclusion perpetua.

Pilgrims for Peace, a two-decade old alliance of church leaders, sectoral representatives, academics, and individuals advocating for peace, has been campaigning for the release of political prisoners. It is preparing a priority list of political prisoners for immediate release who are elderly and seriously ailing, including women political prisoners who are nursing mothers or pregnant to avoid the repetition of the fatal case of River Nacino, the baby daughter of political prisoner Reina Mae Nacino.

In requests for furlough, bail petitions, and grants of special accommodations, political personalities are prioritized over political prisoners. Preferential treatment was enjoyed by former senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada, and Sen. Bong Revilla, and former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Filipino political prisoners may find solace in the thought that renowned men and women were also political prisoners for their steadfast beliefs, deep convictions, and enduring advocacies.

Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, is the earliest recorded political prisoner. He was incarcerated for allegedly polluting the minds of Grecian youth by criticizing Athenian society and authorities. He was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning after he declined exile.

More than a political prisoner and a victim of torture, Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross for preaching a revolutionary ministry of love and peace, which shamed the Roman governors and made the influential Pharisees envious. Joan of Arc, a French 15th century heroine, was falsely charged with heresy, imprisoned and burned at the stake. Her real sin was “inconveniencing the elites”.

The following political prisoners were bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize: civil rights activist Martin Luther King (United States) in 1964; Anwar Sadat (Egypt) and Menachim Begin (Israel) were awarded together in 1978 for negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel; labor activist and Solidarity co-founder Lech Walesa (Poland) in 1983; opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma, now Myanmar) in 1991; anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela (South Africa) in 1993; Shimon Peres (Israel) and  Yasser Arafat (Palestine), who together worked tirelessly for a peace settlement between Jews and Palestinians, received the prize jointly in 1994; political activist and human rights advocate Kim Dae-Jung (South Korea) in 2000; writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (China) in 2010; and economist and the first woman to lead an African nation Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) in 2011.

Of the aforementioned 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates who were political prisoners, nine were either already presidents or prime ministers or subsequently became heads of state: Sadat, Begin, Walesa, Suu Kyi, Mandela, Peres, Arafat, Kim, and Johnson Sirleaf.

Although not a Nobel Prize awardee, Vaclac Havel, a political prisoner, playwright, and dissident, was the first president of the Czech Republic.

The pantheon of political prisoners includes Mahatma Gandhi, Jose Rizal, and Ninoy Aquino, among many others.

Enviable company may soothe the physical sufferings of political prisoners and elevate their unconquerable spirits, but no balm is a substitute for freedom, which liberates the mind, emancipates the body, and accelerates activism.

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