I WAS once a political prisoner or so I would like to think. Sometime in the early 2000s, police were dragging students from the frontlines during an anti-budget cut rally at the Senate grounds when I stood up to ask where they were taking the students. I thought that introducing myself as a teacher would have a positive effect. Instead, I was thrown at the back of a police van together with the other accosted.
My companions were all right save for a few non-serious injuries while the police were busy dispersing the rallyists all the way to Roxas Boulevard. I would have been a bonafide political prisoner with a police record to my name, if my companion and I, after sensing that we were left alone, did not decide to alight from the vehicle to walk casually away. The gamble paid off seeing the perplexed look of the police as we walked past their police line unsure of who we were and where we came from.
So let me add a correction. I had the potential to have been incarcerated for my political beliefs by the state for all of 15 minutes which is a shoddy and shameful achievement if one were to compare this to what real political prisoners undergo.
Yes, there are Filipinos who are thrown in jail for years by the government because of their political beliefs and we are given a glimpse into their plight this week when dozens were released on bail for the upcoming peace talks in Olso, Norway. With most going into their 60s, they have been in jail for trumped up charges in prisons all over the country.
As has been the case for past and present administrations, it has been the policy of the military to charge suspected rebel leaders with common crimes as a tactic to keep them languishing in prisons for an indeterminate amount of time. Already of frail health, some have died while incarcerated like the case of Eduardo Serrano who was 62 when he succumbed to heart failure after being placed behind bars for 12 years. There are more than 500 of them who remain in prisons all over the country including Joel Yagao here in Misamis Oriental.
The release of the first batches were dramatic and heart-warming according to reports. Whenever political prisoners are, either in maximum security prisons or regular city and provincial jails, they almost always gain the high esteem and respect of their fellow inmates. To celebrate their temporary liberty, hundreds of fellow detainees at the Special Intensive Care Area 1 in Bicutan, Taguig erupted in cheers and chants when a few of them including Alan Jasminez, Renante Gamara, Ernesto Lorenzo, and Tirso Alcantara walked out where they were met by supporters who were camped outside for days.
One of these supporters was a high school senior who just happened to pass by on her way to school and read her lolo’s name in the banners. She got off from the jeepney to join the well-wishers and had her tearful reunion with Tiso Alcantara or Ka Bart later that afternoon. They have not seen each other for 12 years and she has been living with a relative in Manila after her own mother, Ka Bart’s daughter, was jailed for nine years.
There is also the release of Alex and Winona Birondo who also had their own reunion as husband and wife outside Camp Bagong Diwa just this week upon their release. It was a year of hand gestures and waves between the buildings where the two were jailed. Just like Benito and Wilma Tiamzon who are set to be hopefully released in the coming days, they only had the chance to be with each other during court hearings and special arrangements.
The gesture of the administration to effect the release of our nation’s political prisoners from the left is an indication of the political will of the current president. At best, it shows that government may finally recognize that there are indeed Filipinos unjustly placed in prison because of their political beliefs and may pave the way for the release of the hundreds of others unjustly persecuted for their convictions.
It is also an occasion to see these personalities who once hid behind the shadows because of their work in the revolutionary movement. The profile of the just released political prisoners are hardly the hardened criminals and terrorists previous governments have made them to be. They are made up of couples, grandfathers, mothers and fathers, just like the rest of us and the only reason they suffered through years of persecution is because they held on steadfastly to their political convictions in defense of indigenous communities, peasants, and workers no matter the consequences.
That cannot be said of that young instructor who walked away from the police mobile van and missed his chance to approximate the greatness of these brave souls.