This lesson will discuss the importance of prison visits as well as describe some such visits undertaken by the AHRC in the Philippines.
A. Why prison visits?
Since 2006, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)’s Philippines desk has organized visits to victims of torture and other human rights violation whose cases had been issued as urgent appeals, at the different detention facilities within and outside Metro Manila. The purpose of these visits was not just to meet and check up on the victims, but also to update them about the progress of their case, such as informing them of the letters and responses received from the government and others on their case, any reports published using their cases, and so forth.
Sometimes their family members, friends and paralegals are taken along to visit them in prison, to discuss their case as well as to simply chat, which serves victims as informal trauma counselling.
During such visits, the AHRC staff have also come across detainees who asked for intervention in their case; for instance, their case hadn’t been heard for many years in court. One such case was that of Iladio Laydan, a prisoner whom we met at the North Cotabato Provincial Jail in Kidapawan City, Mindanao in June 2010. Laydan was arrested and charged with rape and homicide on 23 September 2004. Only three years after his arrest, in July 2007 did the Regional Trial Court (RTC) 12 in Kidapawan City resolve that he had a case to answer. Laydan was arraigned on July 24, and when the Court commenced his trial on 27 September 2007, he appeared in court without a lawyer. The court appointed a private practitioner, lawyer Russel Abonado, to be his "counsel-de-officio to assist him in today's hearing only", but it turned out that his 'one-day' lawyer was representing him throughout the case.
On July 19, 2008, Rogelio Narisma, the RTC judge, ordered Abonado to be replaced because he seemed to be too "busy with his other official functions… [to] attend regularly to this case”. A lawyer from the Public Attorney’s Office, Joseph Jev Palomar, then took over the case upon the Court's request for a lawyer.
By June 2010 however, little progress had been made in his case. At this time, AHRC staff were conducting a regular visit of torture victims whom urgent appeals had been issued for. The victims were asked about the progress of their case, whether any relatives or the Commission on Human Rights had visited them, when was their last hearing and next hearing, and so forth.
A few meters away, a man was observing them intently. According to AHRC staff,
After hearing all these questions, and realizing that those victims being spoken to had more regular visits by their non-relatives than any other prisoners, he was curious about what we were doing.
He came to sit next to me and started asking me questions. He moved slowly, physically weak, and his clothes were dishevelled as he was talking to me. After hearing questions about their scheduled hearings whether their lawyer had spoken to them, Laydan told me that his case was never scheduled for hearing, and that the public attorney representing him never bothers to tell him about his case.
In the Philippines, a person like Laydan, accused for rape and murder, regardless of whether he is innocent or guilty of the charge, would get little help from any NGOs or other groups. Sexual offence is a taboo for any NGOs or even human rights lawyers—justifying these types of cases are not in their mandate.
Moreover, Laydan is a member of an indigenous tribe, for which sexual offense is a taboo. Once a member of the tribe is accused or charged of such, they become outcast, and even their own families do not visit them in jail. When I spoke to Laydan, given the fact that he is a person who had no education and no idea about the laws and legal process, he said if he indeed committed the offence as charged he would not mind to be killed at anytime, but he is innocent.
In October 2010 the AHRC began writing to concerned authorities regarding Laydan’s case, as well as initiating a discussion on the issue of legal aid in the country [Please see AHRC-ART-010-2011, 27 January 2011 for details].
When another visit was conducted in July 2011, and inquiries were made as to what had happened in his case, Laydan said that to his surprise, a new lawyer had been appointed, who adequately briefed him about his case’s progress before and after each hearing, and the hearings were taking place regularly as well.
While Laydan’s case is still ongoing at the time of writing, the Public Attorney’s Office in Kidapawan City has become more careful in the cases they are handling, which can be seen in their responses to AHRC appeals and statements.
This case also brought up other issues for discussion and contemplation, such as the protection of minority rights as well as a person’s basic rights to fair trial and due process. It demonstrates the importance of documentation and monitoring, as well as spotlighting how an individual case can speak to larger systemic issues. See HRCS Lesson Series 44: Getting it down: The importance of documentation for a detailed study on documentation, together with various cases undertaken by the AHRC.
B. Particular cases
On 1 February 2010, the AHRC reported the case of three peasant organizers Charity Diño, Billy Batrina and Sonny Rogelio, who were illegally arrested and detained by armed men in plainclothes on November 23, 2009 at 8am. At that time, the three organizers were in the municipality of Talisay, Batangas, inviting people in the community to participate in the Urban Poor week. While they were walking, three vans blocked their way. Armed men alighted and forced the three into the vans. One of the vans had been seen roaming the village a day before the incident. The three victims were later known to have been taken to the 730th Combat Group of the Philippine Air Force Camp in Palico, Batangas.
At the military camp, they were tortured, subjected to questioning and held for 17 days. They were blindfolded with adhesive tape and handcuffed. Billy and Sonny had their heads hit against the wall, while Charity had her fingers squeezed hard with bullets inserted between them. Several military personnel interrogated them one after the other. Under torture, they were forced to admit to being members of a rebel group, the New People's Army (NPA). Several names were also mentioned and they were asked if they knew them.
The day after the incident, November 24, the three were taken to the Office of the Prosecutor in Batangas where they were subjected to inquest proceedings. On November 26, charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives were filed against the three at the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 6 in Tanauan, Batangas, and charges of illegal possession of drugs were also filed against Charity at the Municipal Trial Court (MTC) in Talisay, Batangas.
After they were charged in court, and 17 days after the military took custody of them, they were transferred to the Batangas Provincial Jail in Lipa City.
Under Rule 113, section 5 of the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure, only a person attempting to, in the act of committing or who has already committed a crime can be arrested without a warrant. In such situations, a person could be subjected to inquest proceedings on condition that the arresting officers and the prosecutor conducting the inquest are able to establish a 'probable cause' to proceed with prosecution. According to this, the manner of arrest and the subsequent filing of charges against Billy, Sonny and Charity was illegal: the three victims were abducted, they were not properly informed of the nature of charges against them, and evidence was allegedly planted on them to justify the filing of charges in court. They were also held in a military camp instead of the regular detention center required by law. Furthermore, the Anti-Torture Act of 2009 declares the use of torture in criminal investigation a criminal offense. Under this law, evidence and testimonies obtained by way of torture cannot be used in court proceedings [See AHRC-UAC-005-2010].
In June 2010, AHRC staff visited the three victims at the Batangas jail, at which time they documented further details of their torture, which were not mentioned in the earlier appeal, and learned of the case status in court; when the last hearing was held, scheduled and discussions of their lawyers.
Although the victims were keener on pushing for their immediate release (because the charges against them were fabricated) than on pursuing a torture complaint, they nevertheless encouraged AHRC to pursue the complaints of torture with the CHR on their behalf. Despite the AHRC’s communications with both the CHR and the Ombudsman, there was no investigation into the case, and it remains pending today.
During this visit, the three detainees also shared considerable information regarding the illegal activities occurring inside the prison, such as corruption, prostitution and prison officials taking sexual advantage of the detainee’s wives and girlfriends. Due to the fact that Billy, Sonny and Charity were perceived as ‘political detainees’, they were treated slightly better than the other prisoners, and they used their privilege in organizing other detainees to defend their rights and ensure basic conditions. The numerous visits they had by the AHRC as well as other NGOs gave them a certain level of protection, which they used to speak out and complain against prison officials on behalf of other detainees.
In August 1999, five persons, Lenido Lumanog, Augusto Santos, Cesar Fortuna, Rameses de Jesus and Joel de Jesus, were sentenced to death by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Quezon City for the murder of an influential police colonel, Rolando Abadilla. Since then, the five are known as the ‘Abadilla Five’. They were convicted on the testimony of a lone alleged witness, and detained in the New Bilibid Prisons, Muntinlupa City, Metro Manila.
The court's decision convicting them has since been repeatedly challenged by the accused and their legal counsels. However, the court denied the accused' motion to reconsider its decision and to conduct a new trial in order to allow them to present evidence that could prove their innocence. The evidence would also prove that it was a rebel group, the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), who were responsible for Abadilla's murder. None of the Abadilla Five were ABB or had any links to the ABB. In February 2000, the case was transferred to the Supreme Court for mandatory review as required by the rules of criminal procedure involving death sentences. In January 2005, the Supreme Court transferred the case to the Court of Appeals for review, and finally in April 2008, the appellate court upheld the sentencing of the lower court. The accused petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision in May 2008, and the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict on 7 September 2010. The five are now seeking presidential clemency.
The AHRC first took up the Abadilla Five case in June 2007, when their appeal questioning the lower court’s decision convicting them for murder was pending at the Court of Appeals. The case had dragged on for many years, with the lawyers and NGOs assisting them facing many difficulties.
Staff from the AHRC first visited the Abadilla Five in prison at the beginning of 2008 with their former lawyer Soliman Santos. There was a renewed interest by the public into their torture complaint and the failure of the justice system, so at the time of the visit the detainees were given a morale boost. They felt that they were not ignored, and even after many years, their case was still being followed. During the visit, the AHRC was made aware of details regarding the pending court case, as well as their condition inside the jail, particularly of kidney transplant patient Lenido Lumanog. As a result, the AHRC requested for him to receive medical attention [see AHRC-UAU-014-2008, 28 March 2008] which the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) of the Department of Justice (DoJ) later assured would be taken care of.
There were many other benefits from that (and subsequent) visit. As noted by AHRC staff,
That visit strengthened our relationship not only with the detainees’ families, but also with the lawyers and other civil groups helping the detainees. In fact, to me it was one of the breakthroughs in terms of the AHRC’s work regarding how to engage with detainees, legal counsels and groups.
The visit facilitated our connection with the detainees’ families—wives, children and other relatives—whose interest and morale in working on the case was then renewed. The families began pushing the Ombudsman to resolve the torture case, for the Court of Appeals to resolve their appeal for conviction and for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to take upon themselves in pushing for the prosecution of the complaint of torture by the victim (it was the CHR who filed the complaint first).
We had dialogues with the CHR and a regular protest at the Office of the Ombudsman regarding their inability to resolve the case promptly. The combination of following up the legal aspects of the case as well as other forms of protest helped to motivate public interest.
At the time of writing, the victims are keen on seeking presidential clemency after the Supreme Court affirmed their conviction.
The AHRC was able to produce a tremendous amount of documentation on their case, including a publication of detailed interviews with the families of the victims in their pursuit of justice.
Questions For Discussion
1. Are you aware of what prison conditions are like in your country? Have you ever visited a prison/detention center?
2. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of visiting prisoners. How can visits help to protect their human rights?