Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The ghosts of martial law


Last year during the 39th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, Edwin Lacierda, the spokesperson of President Benigno Aquino III, was asked what changes the Aquino administration had initiated to improve the human rights situation. In his reply, Lacierda said, “We have no political prisoners.”

The Aquino government continues to deny that there are political prisoners in
the Philippines. Click link
to view "Political Prisoners in the Philippines."
Lacierda also said that the Aquino administration has no official policy on human rights violations. Pointing to the appointment of Etta Rosales as chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, who herself was a victim of torture under the Marcos regime, Lacierda said this was proof that “We frown on human rights violations.”
In denying that there are no political prisoners in the Philippines, at least under the Aquino presidency, Lacierda argued that the list under the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) bore this out. The list he was referring to contained the names of the persons supposed to be protected by JASIG, who were participants in the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). But the list contained assumed names (aliases) as agreed upon by both panels to ensure the security of the peace talk participants, including their consultants and staff.
Because Lacierda and the government could not decrypt the JASIG list (complaining that there were even no pictures), he used this as his term of reference why no political prisoners exist in the Philippines. Lacierda must have thought that the NDFP supplied in one list the names of all the political prisoners languishing in various jails and detention centres in the country. The list actually had only the names of the NDFP peace panel members and consultants. Either Lacierda, who is a lawyer, was being overly technical in asking for a clearer term of reference or simply dim-witted to deny that political prisoners in the Philippines are in fact deemed as common criminals and incarcerated along with those charged with murder, theft, robbery and other common crimes.
There is nothing novel in Lacierda’s denial. Ferdinand Marcos said the same thing when he said that there were no political prisoners during the martial law period. It has been the official practice of the Philippine government from the time of Marcos to lump all political prisoners with common criminals. From the time of martial law under Marcos, no person has ever been charged with rebellion or treason or for participation in any political activity that opposed the government, but only for crimes such as murder, assault, robbery, kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms, disturbing the peace, and other garden-variety common crimes.
Even the President’s father Ninoy Aquino was jailed by Marcos for trumped-up charges of murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion. Not because he was an outspoken critic of the Marcos administration. Ninoy Aquino was never prosecuted for his political opposition to the martial law regime.
How would President Benigno Aquino III react if told that his father was never a political prisoner, but just a common criminal? When in fact Ninoy Aquino was the foremost political detainee at the time.
Why would hundreds of other political dissenters and innocent victims of state repression continue to suffer imprisonment? Is it because there are no political prisoners? The President must have a short memory: he has already forgotten that one of the first things his mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, proclaimed upon assuming the presidency after martial law was a general amnesty and to release all political prisoners.
A political prisoner is someone who is in prison because he has opposed or criticized the government of his own country. Why most political prisoners have the taken the path of most resistance is not difficult to understand.
When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, he imposed his own will outside of the limits of the Constitution. He ruled by decree and curtailed press freedom and other civil liberties. He closed down Congress and ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and militant activists, including his staunchest critics and potential contenders to the presidency, Senators Benigno Aquino, Jr., Jovito Salonga and Jose Diokno.

Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law in the Philippines on September 21, 1972.
Click  to view "Batas
Militar: Martial Law in the Philippines" by the Philippine Presidency  Project, a two-hour
 long video produced by Foundation Worldwide People Power (FWWPP).
The economy floundered under martial law because Marcos and his cronies were stealing the country’s wealth. Repression was widespread as the military establishment under Marcos became more entrenched and powerful. They could arrest anyone on mere suspicion and make them disappear.
Military historian Alfred McCoy in his book, Closer than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy, cited 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 torture victims, and 70,000 incarcerated during the Marcos martial law period.
As the people were deprived of their political and civil rights, their only viable option was to take to the hills and the path of most resistance. All revolutions are born from similar conditions. Oppressive social structures and economic inequalities often have pushed dissenters to take the road to resistance. Many of these people are poor, weak and belong to underprivileged communities. Where there is state repression, people will always be attracted to fight back.
From the martial law years until the present time, political prisoners have been arrested without the veneer of legality, where false criminal charges and manufactured evidence are used to disguise the fact that an individual is a political prisoner. This situation is most common when human rights are violated and abused, to the point of establishing a culture of impunity by the state.
The legacy of arrest and detention of political prisoners during the Marcos martial law years has never been broken. As it persisted during the Marcos time, justice became a flexible notion and depended on what was in the best interests, not of the people, but of the state and its dictator. Prosecution was used as a political tool and the presumption of innocence was just an abstract liberal legal principle. While the enemies of the Marcos regime could easily have been liquidated, which in some cases were made through enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, the government also opted to make efficient use of the criminal justice system to destroy them. Instead of accusing them of political crimes, they would invent propped-up charges of common crimes. Depriving them of their day in court, they would languish in detention, sometimes tortured and deprived of their decency. What was lacking from the treatment of political prisoners during that time was a “show trial,” a practice that was normally staged in other repressive states where the defendant was brought before the court, a broken and hollow man, to confess his crimes.
Putting in prison those who oppose the government, or even forcing their disappearances or extra-judicially liquidating them is a legacy from the martial law years. Today, such arrest and prolonged detention of political prisoners keep lingering on. There are at present about 385 political prisoners, not identified as such but mixed with common criminals, who continue to languish in prison for exercising their right to civil society freedoms.
Since President Benigno Aquino III became president, there have been 99 victims of extrajudicial killings and 11 cases of enforced disappearances. Majority of the victims are farmers, indigenous peoples and activists advocating for land rights and environmental protection.
In its second-quarter report, the local human rights group Karapatan also documented 60 victims of frustrated killings, 67 victims of torture, 93 victims of physical assault and injury perpetrated by suspected state security forces.
We don’t need to have a better definition of terms or perhaps a clearer term of reference on human rights as Lacierda has suggested. In addition to the rule of law that the Philippines upholds, it is also a signatory to almost all international instruments on human rights. Instead of denial, Lacierda and his likes, including the President, have all the terms of reference before their disposal to inform them on why we have political prisoners in the Philippines including ongoing violations and abuse of human rights.
All those who are in a state of political denial, such as President Aquino, his spokesperson and others can start with a clear appreciation of September 21, 1972, and be ever mindful of the ghosts of martial law that continue to haunt us as a nation.

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