The following speech was part of an event attended by 70 people to mark International Human Rights Day on Saturday, December 10, in Montréal, Québec. Participants shared stories of the struggle of political prisoners from Palestine, Egypt, Palestine, the U.S., Philippines and beyond. Entitled Freedom for All Political Prisoners! Stop Criminalization of Dissent! the presentations and candlelight vigil that followed were organized and endorsed by the Centre for Philippine Concerns, PINAY, Women of Diverse Origins Network, Immigrant Workers Center, Certain Days Political Prisoners Calendar, Tadamon, and PASC.
by Joyce Valbuena
member of the Centre d’appui aux Philippines / Centre for Philippine Concerns
In the Philippines, we have no political prisoners… that is according to a statement by the Presidential spokesperson in my country. Because what the government is doing is criminalizing political actions.
But as far as human rights activists are concerned, there are about 360 political prisoners in the Philippines, 77 of whom, were arrested and detained under the administration of President Noynoy Aquino. Human rights violations have continued unabated. Between July 2010 and October 2011 there have already been 64 extrajudicial killings and 9 enforced disappearances. Human rights groups have monitored thousands and thousands of victims of demolitions, forced evacuations, threats, harassment, intimidation and physical assaults, and other military abuses in the communities since Aquino was elected as President 18 months ago.
Interesting to say, President Aquino’s famous father, Ninoy, was martyred during the Marcos dictatorship as an exiled political prisoner in the 1970s and 80s.
His name is Ericson Acosta, an artist, journalist and cultural worker illegally arrested by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on February 13, 2011 in Samar province which is in the South of the Philippines. He faces trumped-up charges of illegal possession of explosives and is currently detained at the Calbayog City sub-provincial jail.
He was interrogated for at least eight hours non-stop. Up to this day, he is being detained without any formal charges issued by the court.
Ericson's counsel filed a Petition for Review of his case before the Philippine government's Department of Justice last September 1. It stated several irregularities and human rights violations in Ericson's arrest and detention including arrest without warrant. He was not informed of the reason for his arrest at the time of his arrest. He was denied the right to counsel and make phone call or contact his family or his lawyer. He was subjected to prolonged interrogation for 44 hours. He was physically and psychologically tortured during tactical interrogation. He was deprived of sleep, threatened, intimidated, coerced and forced to admit membership in the New People's Army (the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines). The grenade that was "confiscated" from him was planted. He was detained in a military camp, which is not of civilian jurisdiction.
I cannot claim to be a close friend of Ericson but I had met him few times because we are both godparents of a daughter of a common friend. I remember him singing an activist`s love song during our friend's wedding. My personal memories of Ericson is that he is really funny, carefree and weird... based on the stories that my friend shared whenever she remembers their University days and how Ericson matched her to his friend who is now her husband.
But to people who know him, Ericson has transformed himself from a “troublesome” artist to a serious activist. His wife described him as a self-styled bohemian brimming with intellectual arrogance. As campus writer and editor of our school newspaper, his grasp of social, political and aesthetic theory relied mainly on his collection of Marxist literature and books.
Ericson wrote fiery statements, popularized songs, and coined slogans as a student-activist. He was a former cultural editor of the University of the Philippines campus newspaper and then became assistant section editor at the Manila Times.
Years under the obscenely corrupt regime of former President Gloria Arroyo led Ericson to choose to return to the countryside to live and learn with the people.
At the time when Ericson was arrested, he was a freelance journalist documenting the human rights situation in Western Samar. He was arrested in the company of various community leaders from a farmers’ organization who staunchly defended him and affirmed his work as a writer.
Now Ericson has gone from documenter of violations to human rights victim himself. Ericson Acosta is now writing…and singing, for his freedom.
Even in jail, Ericson continues to make his art and music heard despite of the most pressing circumstances. He maintains a blog site diary called Jailhouse Blog where he continues to serve the Filipino people through his poems, songs and feature articles.
With help from fellow comrades and artists, Ericson has recorded two albums worth of songs called “Prison Sessions,” all done while in detention. The songs reach their audience via Facebook and Twitter and are also downloadable to raise awareness of the situation of Ericson and other political prisoners. According to Ericson, his active engagement through his writings naturally serves to effectively amplify the campaign to free all political prisoners.
Ericson is one of the three finalists in the 2011 Imprisoned Artist Prize which is one of the awards given by Freedom to Create, an international award-giving body launched in 2008 aimed to “celebrate the courage and creativity of artists and the positive influence of their work to promote social justice and inspire the human spirit”.
This Saturday and last week, artists in the Philippines sympathizing with Ericson had organized a cultural presentation on the plight of current political prisoners and the nation’s struggle for artistic and political freedom as reflected in the works of artists behind bars. This event presents the wealth of prison literature since Martial Law until the present, and hopes to make the public aware of the plight of its incarcerated authors.
Ericson`s supporters have called on authorities to immediately withdraw the fabricated illegal possession of explosive complaint lodged by the military. One of his particular demands is to pull out the highly irregular if not illegal presence of a squad of military men near his place of detention. A platoon of soldiers were placed there to “guard” Ericson and listen to his conversations with visitors. They fear that Ericson will be rescued by the New People's Army if he stays in Calbayog jail
Currently, the government denies that these prisoners are political dissenters. After having charged them with common felonies (i.e. illegal possession of firearms), the government now treats them as ordinary criminals. In the process, they deny the legitimacy and justness of the grievances of political offenders. Suspicion of being members or supporters of insurgent groups are the usual grounds for their arrest.
On December 3, Ericson Acosta begins his hunger strike as part of the campaign to free all political prisoners in the country. His hunger strike intends to expose the particular circumstances of his arrest and continued unjust detention.
Other political prisoners from various detention cells in the Philippines have also launched hunger strikes since last saturday. Families and supporters of political prisoners have also joined the hunger strike. Others have shaved their heads or had henna tattoo with the message “Free all political prisoners” in solidarity.
It’s a Filipino custom that once one family member suffers, the others suffer as well. We call on to the Philippine government to free all political prisoners so that no family will suffer anymore.
Ericson`s son, Emmanuel, is only eight years old. He may have been spared from the hunger strike now because of young age but his mind surely hungers for answers to his questions on why his daddy is in jail. His heart surely hungers too as he longs to be with his father
We call on the Philippine government to release Ericson Acosta and to grant freedom to all Political Prisoners!
References: Free Ericson Acosta. http://freeacosta.blogspot.com/
Jailhouse Blog. http://acostaprisondiary.blogspot.com/2011/04/welcome-visitors-v21.html
A Political Prisoner's Life and Struggles Inside Prison. http://bulatlat.com/main/2011/12/09/a-political-prisoners-life-and-struggles-inside-prison/
Other Ericson Acosta-related stories in www.bulatlat.com