PH government urged to free political prisoners

Feminists and legal professionals from Asia-Pacific
Feminists and legal professionals from Asia-Pacific. Photo by APWLD/Gabriela Philippines

The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), APWLD member Gabriela Philippines and participants from the APWLD Feminist Legal Theory and Practice Training recently visited women political prisoners at the Correctional Institution for Women in Manila, Philippines.

Nine women political prisoners, a few of whom have been sentenced with life imprisonment, narrated their stories – of being activists, the trauma they endured and how they ended up in prison. They performed poetry and songs and showcased their handcrafted goods.

They shared that they used to work in various communities in the Philippines together with marginalised sectors – from students, women, workers, farmers, to indigenous peoples.

They say their commitment to serve the people and uphold human rights made them easy targets of the government. One of the political prisoners who shared was Alexa Pacalda, a youth organiser, women and LGBT rights advocate and paralegal who was arrested without warrant during a consultation with farmers in Quezon Province in 2019.

Nine women political prisoners. Photo by APWLD/Gabriela Philippines
Nine women political prisoners. Photo by APWLD/Gabriela Philippines

She was charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives and was sentenced with 8-10 years of imprisonment in March 2023. “Illegal possession of firearms and explosives are the most common trumped up charges filed against activists in the Philippines.

Some were charged with murder and homicide for killing people they never even met,” Alexa explained. For many political prisoners, the unwarranted arrest is only the beginning of their horrifying stories. Marilyn Magpatoc, a mother and a political prisoner from Davao City, shared that authorities tagged her as a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and detained her with male prisoners.

When she was transferred to Manila, she was put in isolation without any explanation. “Prisoners are put in isolation if they commit any prison violation. I did not commit anything, but I was in isolation for a month. It was a torture, a dreadful experience,” Marilyn narrated.

Her lawyers did not know she was put in isolation for a month. She said she was eventually put in a regular cell, when the jail guards realised she was not a threat.

Like Alexa, Marilyn was charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. She was sentenced with 19-21 years of imprisonment 2014.

To date, there are 778 political prisoners in the Philippines, 49 of them have been arrested since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. became president in May 2022.

“It is alarming that attacks against activists, especially women human rights defenders, are relentless. The Philippines continues to be an unsafe place for women human rights defenders,” APWLD Feminist Law and Practice programme officer Sadia Afrin Khan commented.

Despite receiving their sentences, both Alexa and Marilyn and all the other women political prisoners remain hopeful that they will soon reclaim their freedom. Alexa has appealed her case immediately after she received her sentence, while Marilyn hopes to be granted an early release based on Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA). Under Republic Act No. 10592 or GCTA Law, a Person Deprived of Liberty (PDL) may be granted an early release if they maintain a good behaviour and actively participate in programmes and activities inside the prison.

If the law is applied to Marilyn, she hopes to be released in the next three years. Meanwhile, APWLD and its training participants who are from different organisations in the Asia-Pacific region urge the Philippine government to review and dismiss the trumped up charges against activists and release the political prisoners in the country and follow the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders.

Likewise, they demand that proper living conditions and health and medical support and access to contact families, including their children and guardians and legal representatives will be provided to political prisoners.

“Activists should not be in prison in the first place. They are dissenters who keep the governments in check and lead the fight for human rights. Political prisoners are a reminder that structural barriers remain in place and injustices prevail,” Sadia emphasised.

“We continue to urge the Philippine government, and all other governments in the Asia-Pacific region to free all political prisoners and hold the human rights violators to account. As it is in any fight, international solidarity is a strong key in demanding accountability,” Sadia concluded.

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