Rights groups rap news blackout on detainees

HUMAN rights advocates on Thursday protested the news blackout imposed on the conditions of the 491 political detainees who went on a five-day hunger strike to coincide with the papal visit to seek the intervention of the Pope for their freedom.

Jail officials barred the hunger strikers from seeing their relatives, lawyers, doctors and the media.

This prompted Bayan Muna lawmakers to denounce the “two-faced character” that the Aquino government has shown in welcoming Pope Francis and in the treatment of the political detainees,  who began their fasting on the day the Pope arrived in the country.

Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general, said it was ironic that the government was violating the human rights of the political detainees when the Pope came here precisely on a mission of mercy and compassion.

Bayan Muna Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlos Isagani Zarate condemned as “illegal, highhanded, callous and devious” the blackout imposed by jail officials at the Camp Bagong Diwa Rehabiltation Center.

“The cavalier acts of these jail officials are not only insensitive and highly irregular coming as it is at that time when we are awaiting the pastoral visit of Pope Francis, preventing the visitation of the political prisoners is also illegal,” Colmenares said.

“Republic Act 7438 clearly spells the right of the detainees, among others, to be visited by their relatives, doctor of choice and counsel. These jail officials must be investigated and held accountable,” said Colmenares, also House Senior Deputy Minority Leader.

“This is the height of hypocrisy being shown by the Aquino government, which makes it appear to the whole world that they warmly welcome the Pope at the same time that it treats the political detainees harshly and differently,” Palabay said.

At least 491 political prisoners in different jails all over the country have staged a hunger strike and are fasting to highlight their plight and the state of the country’s justice system during the visit of Pope Francis.

Andrea Rosal, a political detainee who was among those who wrote to Pope Francis and appealed for his intercession, was also deprived of visitation rights, Palabay said.

Rosal, whose daughter died two days after she was born in detention, introduced herself in her letter to the Pope as the daughter of the late Ka Roger Rosal, former spokesman of the communist New People’s Army.

“We, in Bayan Muna welcome the arrival of Pope Francis in the Philippines and we hope that he will intercede for the release of all political prisoners. We also hope that Pope Francis will support the peace talks between the Government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front to address the root causes of the armed conflict and to attain social justice,” Colmenares said.

Zarate described the jail officials act as “pure harrassment.”

“Its only purpose is to hide from the attention of Pope Francis the sufferings and unjust conditions of the political prisoners under the Aquino administration and shows its two-faced character,” Zarate said.

On Thursday, Palabay said, Dr. Julie Caguiat, who was supposed to check on the conditions of the striking and fasting political prisoners, former Gabriela Rep. Liza Maza, Dr. Carol Araullo of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Sr. Cecilia Ruiz, Marie Hilao Enriquez and Palabay of human rights watchdog Karapatan and several paralegals, were barred from entering the Camp Bagong Diwa Rehabilitation Center.

They identified Jail Warden Michelle Ng Bonto as having demanded all sorts of clearances and made excuses “to unjustly deny” the group’s visit.

“Even an appeal made by lawyer Rey Cortez of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers was also ignored by the jail officials,” Palabay said.

“These jail officials acted like they are above or beyond the law,” Zarate said, echoing the call to investigate the jails officials led by the jail warden Bonto.

The jail officials refused to be interviewed.

Palabay said the doctors wanted to oversee the ongoing hunger strike since the jail officials refused to provide medical personnel to monitor their health.

Various cause-oriented groups in the country trooped to the streets and talked to media to air long-unresolved social problems in the hope that the Pope will intervene.

Baby Reyes, project officer of Rights Network who works with landless Yolanda victims in Leyte and Samar, urged Pope Francis to help victims realize their dreams “where there are no families left without homes and no peasant farmers without lands.”

“Yolanda survivors who are without land and housing security are praying for divine ontervention to fulfill their wish of land and housing security because government solution to these long-standing problems of the poor have become remote possibilities,” Reyes said.

Rights Network has documented that of 11,000 Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) due to agrarian reform beneficiaries in towns of Barugo, Alangalang, and other areas in Leyte, only hundreds have been awarded.

“We, farmers also in Ormoc city, still don’t have our lands for more than 10 years already despite being awarded with CLOAs. We still cannot go back to our farm,” farmer Rosenda Apay said in an interview.

Reyes also hit the government for its “continued negligence” toward Yolanda survivors, and for its lack of long-term shelter security.

Jessie Gariando, leader of Rights Eastern Visayas for farmers and fisherfolk, also asked the Pope to help them to gain access to programs and services of the government for its 1,800 members across Leyte, Tacloban and Ormoc Cities, and Eastern Samar.

Environmental advocacy group Panalipdan-SMR based in Davao City also appealed to Pope Francis for support on People’s Mining Bill.

Kim Gargar, spokesman of the group, said that “in the spirit of pro-people religious stand” they are urging Pope Francis to support the passing of House Bill 4315 or the People’s Mining Bill, which seeks to protect forest areas from further damage through mining.

“The Pope must see the impending ecological crises looming in Mindanao, the ongoing expansion of foreign owned plantations, which did not only displace farmers from their lands, but adversely affected the environment as well,” Gargar said.

Gargar said the ongoing expansion of these corporations greatly reduced the flora and fauna in those areas, making ecosystems unstable.

“Forests are cleared for planting of oil-palm, rubber, and bananas, to name a few cash crops. As a result, various animal species are deprived of their habitats, and essential plants are killed. When these things happen, it’s a biological crisis looming over the horizon,” Gargar said.

Gargar added that with the Pope visit, the voices of the poor farmers will be heard.

“We want the Pope to help us echo the need to bring back the lands to the farmers, so food security can be established, and the environment serves to nourish the people who in turn, take care of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the women’s rights group Gabriela said the Pope could teach President Benigno Aquino III some lessons in compassion and mercy.

Gabriela secretary general Joms Salvador also acknowledged the Pope’s statements against violence towards women, especially wartime rape, as well as his condemnation of sexual abuse committed by priests.

“Most importantly, Pope Francis has affirmed the evils of the current global economic system, albeit tacitly, and condemned corporate greed that further push the poor deeper into hunger and poverty. He can definitely teach the Aquino government some lessons on mercy and compassion... because the Filipino people continue to suffer from the government’s neoliberal policies that are brutal and insensitive to the people’s conditions,” said Salvador.

Salvador said that their group hopes that the Pope will again make strong statements against corruption and impunity, issues that plague the Aquino government.

She also said the government was overacting in its security preparations.

“Pope Francis is known as the People’s Pope, not Pope of the Police. At the rate that the Aquino government is deploying police forces throughout the Pope’s routes, only the police could be near enough to see and interact with him,” she added.

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