Release of political prisoners, among Duterte's unfulfilled promises

In a speech delivered by President Rodrigo Duterte on May 31, 2017 at Sasa Wharf, Sasa, Davao City, he said that he has conceded so many things by releasing almost all political prisoners listed by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).  Duterte added that most of those released were sickly or were 70 years old and beyond.

“The President’s statements are either misguided or malicious. Whether this is another plot to twist the story in favor of the GRP and frame the NDFP as irrational and unreasonable, or a situation where the President is merely kept in the dark about the real score on his promised releases, the fact remains that only 23 political prisoners - 17 NDFP consultants and two others freed for humanitarian reasons last August 2016, all on bail, and four others pardoned on December 2016 - were released in line with the peace talks,” said Karapatan deputy secretary general Jigs Clamor, clarifying the status of releases of political prisoners.

As of May 15, 2017, Karapatan has documented 402 political prisoners still in prison, 39 of whom were arrested under Duterte. This includes 3 more NDFP peace consultants – Ferdinand Castillo, Promencio Cortez, and Rommel Salinas.

Clamor said that from the list Karapatan submitted May last year, sixty-seven political prisoners have been released on the merits of their cases. "Most charges were dismissed by courts, while many PPs have served their unjust sentences and a few others are out on bail. If only for a small fraction, justice has won, but nothing can compensate for the government neglect they suffered whilst in jail,” said Clamor.

The conditions of political prisoners have gone from bad to worse given jail conditions. Clamor cited the case of Dionisio Almonte who suffers from a spinal condition that causes chronic pain, diabetes, hypertension and tuberculosis. “Others, including Bernabe Ocasla, died while waiting for justice in jail. Ocasla has rheumatic heart disease and he died November last year,” he added.

Clamor also mentioned the non-release of Maricon Montajes, Rommiel Canete and Ronilo Baez, collectively known as the Taysan 3 – a group of young political detainees currently detained at the Batangas Provincial Jail. They were 22, 24 and 21 years old, respectively, at the time of their arrest. The three were charged with Illegal Possession of Firearms and Explosives, while Baez was also charged with Frustrated Murder. The court granted them bail in 2016 but it amounted to at least PhP1.4 million. “They could already have been released, if not for the bail amount. These youth, with so much still ahead of them, were victims of State repression, charged with trumped-up cases. Indeed, this government cannot claim that it has conceded so much when it continues to deliberately deny justice to 402 more political detainees,” he said.

Clamor further emphasized that “claims that the president has released almost all political detainees, including those sickly and elderly are baseless. There were promises, yes. We submitted 200 names out of more than 400 political prisoners prioritized for humanitarian considerations last year, but none have come to fruition. While there were news from Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre that convicted inmates from the National Bilibid Prison (NBP) were up for pardon, we have no way to ascertain whether political prisoners were included in that list. There are 52 political detainees in NBP. In any case, no updates were given if even that has already materialized.”

“We emphasize that the release of political prisoners is a matter of justice and is in accordance to GRP’s obligations under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL). We strongly urge President Duterte to consider the gains and continue the talks. The peace talks is among the tracks that will accord partial justice to political prisoners – a track that the President himself promised to pursue when he was yet to be elected. Political prisoners are not criminals, and freedom and justice is what is due them,” concluded Clamor.