Chakoy, human rights defender in jail

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Alexander Abinguna, known fondly to us as Chakoy, has been in jail for nearly two years now. The cases against him are much like the trumped-up charges filed against activists: illegal possession of firearms and illegal possession of explosives.

Those who know Chakoy would agree that he’d be the last person to carry firearms and grenades around the city. After all, he is a human rights worker—and at the time of his arrest, was the regional coordinator of Katungod Sinirangan Bisayas (Karapatan Eastern Visayas).

But more than that, Chakoy is known to many as a gentle, easy going person. The idea of him hiding guns and grenades under his pillow, as state forces claim, is so absurd that we would laugh just imagining it.

Yet these are the cases Chakoy is charged with after he was arrested in the early hours of February 7, 2020. Along with journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, lay worker Mariel Domequil, and fellow human rights workers Mira Legion and Marissa Cabaljao, the “Tacloban 5” were arrested in simultaneous raids by the police and military.

Several months after their arrest, physical jail visits were suspended because of the pandemic. Jail officials have allowed them to make brief phone and video calls to family, lawyers, and paralegal workers. For Chakoy, these are a welcome respite from their lives in confinement.

Through a brief phone call, I got to talk to Chakoy. I heard the noise from inside the prison: inmates playing basketball or some other sports. He joked that he has gotten all buff and muscular, and we laughed heartily. He even got himself a tattoo. Then, he turned serious and asked how things are in the outside.

As I put my phone down, I think of how I first met Chakoy. I was attending a class in UP Tacloban one semester, and he waved to our instructor. He then came inside our classroom with a farmer from Las Navas, Northern Samar. The farmer spoke to us about her community’s situation at that time: how their farming has been disrupted by the military’s aerial bombings.

Later on, I would get to know him better when I became a campus journalist covering various human rights stories. Chakoy hails from Catbalogan, Samar, and graduated from UP Tacloban. He likes to crack jokes all the time, even when no one really laughs at them. Chakoy is also Frenchie Mae’s beau—a fact he specifically requested I include in my writeup about him.

Recently, the two celebrated five years of being together. Frenchie Mae wrote a letter which I happily relayed to Chakoy. One part of the letter read, “Writing this is really hard and painful for me. Remembering you and our moments together means realizing how seconds felt like years and how years are slowly becoming like seconds. And when it’s not too painful, I count the precious moments we should be spending with our favorite people, the mobs we could have been part of, our plans, our future.”

Even while behind bars, they remain in love.

Life in prison

On December 2019, two days after the International Human Rights Day, I joined Chakoy and two others in a fact-finding mission in Basey, Samar. Villagers from Sitio Bagti had evacuated because of the arrest of a local farmer named Christopher Mabag. The military reportedly planted firearms in Mabag’s home, which prompted his arrest.

It was there I got to see Chakoy in action. I observed in awe the way he talked and related with the residents facing a crisis. He even made them laugh! His jokes worked after all.

As it happened, Chakoy crossed paths with Christopher Mabag while in Tacloban city jail.  He learned that the farmer had been convicted and would later be transferred to the regional prison in Abuyog, Leyte. Due to the pandemic, Mabag’s family in Basey couldn’t send money to him.

Chakoy, without second thought, shared with Mabag some of the donations he received so the farmer would have money to spend for his needs in jail.

Chakoy shared that he got sad and angry hearing the injustice that Mabag experienced.

“If only we didn’t get jailed,” he said. “We could have done more.” Hearing this made me realize: Chakoy is a human rights defender through and through.

I asked him what he would do once he finally got out of jail. He said, “Magpapadayon ako han akon gintrabaho han una. Especially yana na mas damo talaga an violations na nahihinabo. Nagtitika-grabe an situation so mas dako an ayat ha aton nga umato.

(I’ll carry on with the work I did before. Especially now when more and more violations are happening. As the situation worsens, the call for us to fight back grows even more.)

To his friends and comrades, he had this to say: “Tapod la kita ngan ayaw kita kawarayan hin hope. Maabot gihap an adlaw nga makakaguwas kami ngan pagbabaydon naton it mga may sala han pagpapakuri han katawhan.

(Let’s trust and not lose hope. The time will come when we will finally be freed and we will seek justice from those responsible for making the people suffer.)

The arrest of Tacloban 5 is nearing its second year. The case is going slowly due to persistent delays and rescheduled hearings. But for us who are fortunate to be their friends do not stop hoping that they will one day be free. And Chakoy, ever the human rights defender, will once more be at the forefront in seeking justice and upholding the rights of the marginalized. #

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