Philippine activists seek pope's intervention over political prisoners

An estimated 500 political prisoners are currently jailed in the country
Philippine activists seek pope's intervention over political prisoners

A cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis is arranged next to photos of political prisoners at a press conference in Manila on Sunday (Photo by George P. Moya)  

Activists and union leaders on Sunday urged the administration of President Benigno Aquino to release all political prisoners in the country and appealed to Pope Francis to intervene on their behalf.

“My father is not a criminal,” said Niki Gamara, daughter of Renante Gamara, a union organizer and peace consultant for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), at a press conference on Sunday in Manila held by the Philippine human rights group Karapatan.

The 25-year-old activist said her father has been unjustly detained for the last three years on charges of kidnapping and murder, while her mother has been forced into hiding after she was accused of involvement in multiple murders.

“Now that Pope Francis is arriving in the country, we are hoping that we can convince him to join us in our plea, to give the Aquino administration a conscience, to release all political prisoners and give justice to all victims of human rights abuses,” she added.

Pope Francis will visit the Philippines from January 15-19 following a short visit to Sri Lanka. 

Karapatan advocates also read an open letter prepared by 32 inmates — many from the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NDFP — being held at Camp Bagong Diwa, who began a hunger strike on Saturday that they say will last for the duration of the pontiff’s visit.

“Your Holiness may be able to help in pressing for the return of the lost freedom and other rights of political prisoners, and thus fully correcting such great social and political ills that have long been pestering our country,” the letter stated.

The prisoners also announced that they would donate 10,000 pesos (US$223) from their food rations savings to victims of Typhoon Haiyan, asking prison officials to make the contribution on their behalf during Pope Francis’ visit to Tacloban on January 17.

The Aquino government denies the existence of any political prisoners in the Philippines, said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, who added that she fears the government will shield Pope Francis from any discussion of the subject.

The existence of political prisoners during the martial law years under the late President Ferdinand Marcos was only made known to then Pope John Paul II during his apostolic visit in 1981, during which activists unfurled a banner demanding their release.

After Pope John Paul II expressed his concern, the Marcos government granted several detainees their release. A hunger strike by prisoners during John Paul II’s second visit in 1995 also led to a selective release of prisoners.

Palabay said that copies of the prisoners’ open letter have also been sent to the Office of the President of the Philippines, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Archbishop Guiseppe Pinto, papal nuncio to the Philippines.

Families of political prisoners, disappeared persons and families of victims of extrajudicial killings would also attempt to deliver personal letters to Pope Francis upon his arrival.

There are an estimated 500 political prisoners currently in detention in the Philippines — most of them with ties to activist and militant groups — while hundreds of others have been the victims of extrajudicial killings in the last several years, according to Karapatan.

The group says it will hold a series of events to further draw the pope’s attention to political prisoners and victims of other human rights violations, including demonstrations and a “People’s Mass” in the Liwasang Bonifacio area of downtown Manila on the day of the pontiff’s arrival. 

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