Duterte & political prisoners: From amnesty to ‘trump card’


FALSELY CHARGED, languishing in jail, and now treated as playing cards by the government to secure a bilateral ceasefire deal.

Political prisoners face what human rights groups call “deplorable and inhumane treatment” from the Philippine government – a clear contrast from the commitment of pardon, general amnesty and immediate release that Pres. Duterte made at the start of his term.

In an interview on December 8, the president said he cannot grant the release of the political prisoners because they are his “last card” in the peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).  “Ang alas ko yung nasa kulungan… Playing a poker game here, maubos ang baraha ko. I-release ko lahat yan, ano pang pag-uusapan namin?” Duterte was quoted in a Davao Today report.

The president earlier announced that he will only release 130 political detainees if the peace panels produce and sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement. Peace advocates have decried Duterte’s recent statements, and warned the administration against treating political prisoners as hostages in pushing for a ceasefire deal.

“President Duterte’s callous treatment of political prisoners as playing cards and the peace negotiations as a poker game is deplorable and inhumane,” said Rey Casambre of the Philippine Peace Center.

“The consequences are tragic not only for the prisoners, but also for the prospects of negotiating a just and lasting peace,” he added.

‘A complete turnaround’

NDFP chief peace negotiator Fidel Agcaoili called Duterte’s statements a complete turnaround from the commitments he made with the NDFP high-level delegation on December 2 in Davao City. “It was clear in that meeting that he promised pardon for convicted political prisoners and the release of 130 ailing and elderly political detainees before Christmas,” Agcaoili said.

The NDFP also criticized the president for labelling the political prisoners as members of the New People’s Army (NPA). In a statement, it said that Duterte’s rash accusation reveals his adherence to the policy and practice of previous administrations of detaining dissenters, charging them with fabricated cases, and using them to pressure the NDFP to an indefinite ceasefire or negotiated capitulation. “Pres. Duterte was a former prosecutor and he understands that the criminalization of political cases is a violation of Philippine and international laws,” it said.

According to Casambre, “Like his predecessors, he justifies his treatment of political prisoners by repeating the lie that they are all NPAs. This is despite knowing they are being held on the basis of trumped up criminal charges as a result of continuing government policy and practice.”

Majority of over 400 political prisoners are charged with common non-bailable cases, according to human rights group Karapatan. This is a serious violation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) and the Hernandez political doctrine that prohibits criminalizing political dissenters.

“The release of political prisoners is a state obligation and not a favor from the government,” Cristina Palabay of Karapatan told Bulatlat.com

Even before he assumed office, Duterte had vowed to release all political detainees through general amnesty, Palabay added. A report by Manila Today recalled how the government peace panel reaffirmed its commitment to honor previous agreements between the government and NDFP and expedite the release of political prisoners based on the list of prisoners that the NDFP will provide. These are embodied in the joint statements of the first and second round of peace talks in August and October.

However since the peace negotiations began in August, only 19 have been released mainly to participate in the first two rounds of peace talks in Oslo, Norway.


In a separate statement, the NDFP said that it is them that should be appalled by the government panel’s delaying tactics, which have resulted in the death of Bernabe Ocasla. The 66-year old political detainee died in detention on Nov. 28 due to cardiac arrest. He was among the list of political detainees that the government agreed to immediately release based on humanitarian grounds.

Bulatlat.com interviewed Ocasla’s daughter Choan after her father’s death. “He really hoped he would be released so we can be together this Christmas. It became true. Only now, papa is in a coffin,” she said.

Thirteen political prisoners have died while in detention over the past seven years. According to Agcaoili, “What brought about Pres. Duterte’s change of heart in just a matter of days (since our December 2 meeting) is for him to answer to the Filipino people, especially the families, relatives and supporters of the political prisoners whose hopes and trust in his word are fast eroding.”

Human rights groups believe that just as Pres. Duterte can block the release of political prisoners to use them as leverage in the peace talks, he could also exercise the same authority for their immediate release.

“Duterte’s own pronouncement that he can release within 48 hours validates what peace advocates have been saying all along – that any political prisoner can be released within days complying with the judicial processes,” said Casambre. “This belies the claim of government peace negotiators Sec. Jesus Dureza and Sec. Silvestre Bello that the release through judicial processes takes a long time.”   

For NDFP legal consultant Edre Olalia, the immediate release of political prisoners who are victims of injustice is a moral imperative. “More than complying with peace agreements and showing goodwill and confidence, their release is a fulfillment of an agreement. It is a matter of justice,” he said.

Bilateral ceasefire deal still possible

As an attempt to assure the release of political detainees, the NDFP said it is willing to work on a bilateral ceasefire agreement and produce a draft for signing by January next year. NDFP peace adviser Luis Jalandoni in an interview said that the possibility of bilateral ceasefire is closely linked to the release of the political prisoners “on the basis of justice”.

“Our offer is to have a discussion on the matter of bilateral ceasefire in early January. After that, we can have a signing of the agreement and the political prisoners can be released within 48 hours,” Jalandoni said. He stressed that the bilateral ceasefire agreement can take affect after 48 hours, the timeframe within which the president shall have ordered and released all the political detainees.

“This is a matter of right of the political detainees who have been unjustly detained and charged with trumped up cases and common crimes in violation of the CAHRIHL. It is also an application of the CAHRIHL, which the government reaffirmed and must respect and implement,” he added.

The amnesty and release of all political detainees, the NDFP said, will encourage a more stable ceasefire and greatly improve the atmosphere for discussing socio-economic reforms – one of the topics that the Duterte government and NDFP will take up in the next round of talks in January.

Report by Rhea Padilla and Micah Magaro

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