Not even the foreshadowing ferocity of Typhoon “Pedring” concealed the immense delight of Maricon Montajes and six other political detainees inside the Batangas Provincial Jail, as they shared their stories to our group of lawyers and paralegals who visited them last Wednesday.
The 21-year-old Montajes, a native of Davao City, was a Film and Audio Visual Communication student at the University of the Philippines-Diliman when she was “illegally arrested” together with two other youths last June 3, 2010 by elements of the Philippine Air Force while on an exposure and integration trip with farmers in Taysan, Batangas.
Accustomed to the nurturing environment of a close-knit family back in Mindanao, the diminutive Montajes, also known as “Eedom” to friends, has since learned to lean on her fellow political detainees and share her joys and tears with them. “Sa kulungan, ang pagsuko ng malayang kaisipan ang pangunahing kalaban na dapat talunin (In prison, the temptation to surrender the freedom to think independently is the No. 1 enemy one must conquer),” she said.
The howling rain almost drowned her accounts of seemingly endless, rough interrogations and “torture” that she and her friends suffered after they were arrested; and, her lament over the slow resolution of the cases filed against them.
Eedom decried the government’s “criminalization” of their status, an irony that was not lost on her. As it was before, it is still so now. “We were falsely presented as NPA rebels, but we were charged with common crimes,” she bewailed. They are facing such charges as illegal possession of firearms and explosives, election gun ban violation, and frustrated homicide.
The charges shocked her childhood friends in Davao City, where she is known as someone “who would never do anyone or any living organism on earth any harm.” Consistently a student leader, Eedom spent her elementary and high school years at the city’s Stella Maris Academy, where she was a “grand slam class president from elementary to high school, became vice president of the Student Coordinating Council and president of the Social Studies Club until she graduated with academic honors in 2007.”
“Young as she was, she already manifested a strong sense of justice and unwavering leadership among her peers, the embodiment of a Marisian leader possessing the kind of faith in God’s people,” said the academic community of Stella Maris in a statement calling for her and her companions’ release. “Maricon’s passion for what is good and just is clearly expressed in her art, in her dances, music and poetry, where she knows no bounds but freedom in relaying the kind of social consciousness expected of a true Marisian.”
Earlier that day, in a meeting, our delegation from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) brought the cases of Montajes and her companions to the attention of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
Records of the rights watchdog Karapatan show that out of the country’s 360 political prisoners as of August 2011, at least 303 (84.17 percent) have been charged with common crimes. Only 15 (4.17 percent) have been charged with rebellion. Twenty others have been charged with common crimes in addition to rebellion and two are charged with “terrorism.”
“This phenomenon continues despite the fact that even the testimonial and documentary bases—spurious or otherwise—submitted to the prosecutors show that the alleged acts are obviously in furtherance of one’s political beliefs,” stated an NUPL aide mémoire submitted to De Lima during the meeting.
We also presented to De Lima the rampant and improvident use by prosecutors of the “John Doe” information in court, in violation of the justice department’s Circular No. 50, which mandates, among other things, that other appropriate descriptions of a particular “John Doe” must be elicited from supposed witnesses, to distinguish him or set him apart from the others.
The October 1999 department circular also directed public prosecutors “to place a new name in the Information in lieu of a John Doe only when the description of this John Doe as appearing in the sworn statement of a witness substantially tallies with the description of the person in John Doe’s stead.” Yet, despite these clear directives, public interests lawyers are still “confronted with this frustrating and unjust practice and the same continues to be violated and not strictly complied with.”
“There is from our experience on the ground, a continuing trend to indiscriminately file charges and secure warrants of arrests against our clients who are invariably leaders, members of legal mass organizations, NGO workers, party-list groups and even human rights advocates by means of ‘John Doe’ cases, which are intended to silence or neutralize them and deter others from joining their causes,” the NUPL noted.
We hope changes are forthcoming. De Lima said she “agreed” with the NUPL’s “legal posturing” and committed to immediately form a committee to draft guidelines relating to the criminalization of political offenses and the use of John Doe charges. “It is just a question then of how to operationalize (these guidelines) and make our public prosecutors understand,” De Lima said.
Indeed, it is the height of irony that Eedom and other political offenders continue to languish in various jails, while those who sponsored and promoted the culture of impunity in our country remain scot-free in this supposed era of “matuwid na daan”—shamelessly enjoying their plundered riches and flaunting their residual power and influence.
But, as political detainee and teacher Charity Dino noted during the meeting: “Mga katawan lang talaga namin ang puwedeng ikulong ng mga rehas na bakal (It’s only our bodies that they put behind a jail’s iron bars).”