Filipino human rights groups appeal for release of women political prisoners

Frenchie Mae Cumpio, 24, is an Eastern Visayas community journalist who was arrested on February 7, 2020. She was taken into custody by police and military forces who, human rights group said, planted evidence of firearms and explosives to justify her arrest.  

Cumpio used to report about human rights abuses in her region, specifically on the impact of the intensification of counter-insurgency operations in Samar, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, and the Bicol Region. She also wrote stories on land grabbing, disasters, and labor disputes in the region.

Cumpio is one of 812 political prisoners in the Philippines. 

Frenchie Mae Cumpio. Photo credit: Cumpio’s Facebook

Women political prisoners

As the Philippines joins the rest of the world in celebrating International Women’s Month this March, women’s rights groups from different sectors are calling attention to the plight of women political prisoners all over the country.

Earlier this month, women’s groups Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women along with Kapatid: Friends and Families of Political Prisoners, Gabriela, Tanggol Bayi, Free our Sisters – Southern Tagalog, Citizens Rights Watch Network and Association of Women in Theology (AWIT), held a protest in Manila and filed an appeal at the Department of Justice to demand the immediate release of women political prisoners.  

Protesters appeal at the Department of Justice.

Based on records of the rights group Karapatan, there are 812 political prisoners in the Philippines, and 162 are women. They are in different detention centers across the country. The peasant women group Amihan said 97 of the women are from the peasant sector, and 74 were arrested during the Rodrigo Duterte regime.

“These peasant women political prisoners were illegally arrested on false charges such as illegally possessing firearms and explosives. They are victims of the military’s red-tagging and terrorist labeling. All these women did was fight for their rights to land and livelihood,” Amihan chairperson Zenaida Soriano said.

“Many of them have now been separated from their families for years. Many have had sicknesses even before their arrest, and their health conditions have deteriorated under incarceration. There have also been women political prisoners who died in prison. These women have also suffered personal tragedies in prison like their children dying. We assert their innocence and we demand that the courts do them justice by junking all the fake charges against them and giving them back their freedom.” 

Amihan cited the cases of Adelaida Macusang who was jailed in Tagum City and died on May 4, 2020, after suffering cardiac arrest and kidney failure; Nona Espinosa in Guihulngan City, who was separated from her newborn baby Carlen who died due to infection to lungs and blood; and Ma. Lindy Perocho, jailed in Escalante City, 57, is in dire need of immediate and proper medical attention due to her heart and kidney problems. Perocho was a member of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and was arrested on November 1, 2019, and accused of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.  

Soriano said political prisoners, especially the elderly, sick, pregnant and nursing mothers, those who are due for parole, those who are married to another political prisoner, and the accidental victims of political arrests, should be immediately released.

Cora Agovida, Deputy Secretary General of Gabriela, said they had filed an appeal at the Justice Department for the immediate release of women political prisoners affiliated with their group, namely Marites Coseñas, Annabelle Quijano, Nerita de Castro, Corazon Javier, Adora Faye De Vera, Jean Estiller, and Digna Aquilino.

“These women and all who came before them have had to fight hard against the limitations imposed by society against women. Against the backdrop of a feudal-patriarchal society, they asserted their rightful place in the struggle for rights and justice. These women deserve to be emulated for standing up for their rights and those of all Filipino women, especially the poor,” Agovida said.

Agovida said the women political prisoners their group is demanding to be released were arrested for actively campaigning for Filipinos’ democratic rights, which include livable wages, decent jobs, and civil liberties.

“They are teachers, organizers, poets, and artists. They have done nothing illegal,” she said.

Among these women is Atheliana Hijos, 76, secretary-general of Gabriela-Caraga. She was arrested on August 31, 2022, in her home at Nasipit, Agusan del Norte, based on testimonies of soldiers who alleged that the senior citizen was a combatant involved in armed encounters. She has since been diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and suffered a stroke while in detention.

False charges

The lawyers of the political prisoners continued to decry how their clients have been arrested and detained on charges which they pointed out as false.

Among the cases that Karapatan in the Negros Region are handling is that of 22-year-old Karina Mae de la Cerna, national deputy-secretary general of the National Network of Agrarian Reform Advocates (NNARA-Youth), who is detained together with her mother, community organizer Ma. Pilar, and father Albert of the peasant theater group Teatro Bungkal. All three have been charged with child trafficking.

Other cases include Harlyn Balora, a student leader who was arrested on February 19, 2022, while investigating the effects of super typhoon Odette upon farming communities in Isabela, Negros Occidental, and University of the Philippines Cebu honors graduate Carmen Jonahville Matarlo, who was arrested when she continued with her activism even after being shot by soldiers during a fact-finding mission in Bayawan City, Negros Oriental.

Nona Espinosa is accused of being a leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and is arrested with her husband on September 20, 2020, in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental. She now faces 15 criminal charges. She gave birth in prison to a son who eventually died two months after he was taken away from her.

In the Southern Tagalog Region south of Manila, Evangeline Rapanut, 72, was arrested in Dasmariñas City, Cavite on May 31, 2022. A former Methodist deaconess, she faces several serious charges including two counts of murder, frustrated murder, robbery, and illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Protesters want the release of falsely accused women political prisoners.

Defending human rights defenders

Despite the climate of political repression, there are efforts at the grassroots level to counter the attacks against civil rights in the Philippines and the criminalization of rightful protest and dissent.

On March 3, 2023, the Baguio City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for the enactment of a law that recognizes and protects the rights of human rights defenders in the country.

Principally authored by Councilors Peter Fianza and Jose Molintas, Baguio City Council Resolution No. 155, Series of 2023 calls for the expeditious approval of proposed bills for the enactment of a human rights defenders law.

The resolution defines human rights defenders as people who, individually or in association with others, act within the ambit of the law to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and the welfare of the people at the local, regional, national, and international levels.

The resolution cites House Bill No. 05600 titled “an Act Defining Certain Rights of Human Rights Defenders and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof” which was filed before the House of Representatives in 2008.

Signatories of the resolution also expressed support for other initiatives recognizing and protecting human rights defenders, particularly mentioning the advisory issued by the Commission on Human Rights-Cordillera Administrative Region (CHR-CAR) acknowledging the increasing red-tagging cases in the region.

The advisory explained that red-tagging of human rights groups, civil society organizations, and individuals undermines basic constitutional rights. It was also reiterated in the advisory that activists are not terrorists and that activism is not a crime.

On January 30, 49-year-old Jennifer Awingan was served a warrant for a trumped-up charge of rebellion at her home in Baguio. Four of the seven activists named in the warrant, including Awingan, are women, the three others being peasant leader Lourdes Jimenez and development workers Sarah Abellon and Florence Kang. 

The Gabriela group said the rebellion charges against the three women are but the latest in a string of attacks by the government to discredit pro-people advocates. 

The four women activists and 62-year-old Maritess Violago, another political prisoner from Bicol, have posted bail and are on temporary release.

On a higher level, many draft legislations have been filed in the House of Representatives since 2008 calling for the protection of human rights workers, but none have been approved even after they were transmitted to the Senate which failed to act on them. In this 19th Congress, there are three proposals on the protection of human rights defenders House Bill Nos. HB00077, HB00256, and HB02484.

Security presence at the protest site.

Address the weaponization of law and impunity

As for the Justice Department, observers said its recent initiatives to address the demands of the human rights community are worth supporting. The department released Department Circular No. 008, stating that prosecutors handling cases in Municipal Trial Courts (MTCs), Municipal Trial Courts in Cities (MTCCs), and Metropolitan Trial Courts (MeTCs) are directed to immediately withdraw criminal charges in cases where there is no reasonable certainty of conviction.

A separate agency circular No. 11 further directs prosecutors to recommend only fifty percent (50 percent) of the recommended bail stated in the 2018 Bail Bond Guide or the amount of ten thousand pesos (P10,000), whichever is lower, in pieces of information indicting indigent respondents.

President of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) Atty. Ephraim Cortez explained that these initiatives will help unclog court dockets and decongest prisons all over the country.

“There is a need to do away with the tedious process wherein indigent respondents have to prove their indigence. We hope though that this quite limiting threshold of indigency must be amplified to take into full account actual capacity to post bail,” he said.

The human rights lawyer argued, however, that more thorough reforms should be implemented to address grievous cases of arbitrary detention arising from trumped-up charges of nonbailable crimes.

According to Karapatan and other human rights groups helping political prisoners, activists are being arrested after falling victim to underhanded tactics.

“The arresting officials planted evidence, usually firearms, ammunitions and explosives, during the serving of search warrants or warrants of arrest. The issuance of which is itself also subject to challenge,” he said.

Security presence at the protest site.

The NUPL’s secretary-general Atty. Josa Deinla said fabricated testimonies by so-called rebel returnees, perjured informants, and military elements were also being used to implicate activists and human rights defenders in alleged activities of the Communist Party of Philippine and the New Peoples’ Army (NPA).

“We also see the mechanical and arbitrary insertion of the real names of activists and human rights defenders beside aliases and John or Jane Does in criminal pieces of information. There are also bogus preliminary investigations where the respondents failed to participate because the subpoenas were sent to fictitious, inexistent, or incorrect addresses,” she said.

Deinla said the practice of these methods, among others, is driven by clear political motives.

“They have led to the cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishment of political detainees in overcrowded jails. The justice department should not countenance the misuse and abuse of judicial processes,” she said.

Speaking for the political prisoners and the women political detainees in particular, Atty. Maria Sol Taule said they are incarcerated for their political beliefs and for advocating the rights of the marginalized sectors.

“They are subjected to various forms of red-tagging and abuses including torture, sexual violence, and denial of medical care. Despite facing severe adversities, women political prisoners continue to be at the forefront of the struggle as powerful symbols of resilience and resistance. We will not give up until they are released. The existence of political prisoners in the country exposes the true status of human and civil rights in the Philippines,” she said. 

All photos credit except where stated: Ina Silverio

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