Fighting for Freedom, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Plight of Women Political Prisoners

Fighting for Freedom, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Plight of Women Political Prisoners

Trigger Warning: This blog contains details of sexual violence.

Mother's Day is a day typically filled with celebrating the unwavering love and strength of mothers, yet there are mothers who are separated from their children and loved ones. Jailed on trumped-up charges, these Pinay activists and human rights defenders are not only robbed of their freedom and liberty but also the most precious moments of motherhood. Often faced with trumped-up charges, delayed and slow court trials, these Nanays (mothers) are separated or live life in prison with their children at the cost of their activism. Here are some stories of women political prisoners, their unwavering fight for justice, and the high price they pay for fighting for the causes they hold dear.

According to Karapatan, a human rights organization, as of December 31, 2023, there are around 799 political prisoners, 90 of whom are elderly, and 98 are unwell. From this number, there are 164 women. These strong women are part of those who are wrongfully imprisoned, their voices muffled out by fabricated accusations, manipulated evidences, and lies under oath. Many have been already subjected to torture and abuse, but despite this, their resolve to fight remains unwavering.

Generational activism, generational injustice

In photo: Amanda Echanis holding her son, Randall Emmanuel

Daughter of slain peace consultant and Anakpawis Chairperson Randall Echanis, Amanda Echanis was arrested at dawn on December 2, 2020.

At the peak of crackdown on activists during Duterte's regime, Amanda was charged with non-bailable trumped-up charges such as illegal possession of firearms and explosives. She was arrested together with her month-old baby, Randall. Even before her arrest, she was already a target of red-tagging and baseless accusations.

Raising Randall in prison, she doesn’t entertain the question of what Randall’s life would have been had she quit activism. “If that’s the framework you work in, it means there’s regret,” Amanda said. “I don’t look at it like that. We’re here not because I wanted to, but we’re here because they planted evidence. What this means is that the system has remained the same. In fact, it’s gotten more cruel, for this to happen to people who do not deserve it,”

Amanda bravely followed the footsteps of her late father and mirrored his advocacies through her efforts as an organizer of Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women Cagayan promoting genuine agrarian reform.

Crying a River

During the Duterte administration, at the peak of the crackdown on activists, the state forces were arresting as many as 62 activists without warrants in the span of a few days. On November 5, 2019, the Manila Police District (MPD) and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) raided the Bayan office in Tondo, Manila. Among those who were arrested was Kadamay Manila coordinator Reina Nasino. Issued on October 30, the search warrant was authorized on baseless suspicions that there were illegal firearms and explosives in violation of Republic Act 9516.

Reina wasn't aware that she was pregnant at the time of the arrest. It was only during the routine medical examination in prison that she found out that she was in her first trimester. She was even excited to be a mother according to her lawyer and was even ready to face the challenge of giving birth in custody. However, months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country.

The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) filed a series of motions urging to release of 22 political prisoners who are vulnerable to coronavirus including Reina, however, there were no decisions on all pleas. On July 1, 2020, Baby River was born prematurely and was later diagnosed with acute gastroenteritis. After a short stay at the hospital, Reina and Baby River were returned to Manila City Jail where they stayed in a makeshift room provided for them.

In the Philippines, children born in custody are only allowed to be with their mothers in their first month. According to the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (The UN Bangkok Rules), the well-being of the child should be considered when deciding on the separation of the child from their mother. Reina pleaded to let her stay in the hospital or at a prison nursery provided with hygienic lactation facilities. However, all efforts and pleas were ignored by courts and authorities.

The following month, Baby River's health began to worsen. Even on her hospitalization on September 24, 2020, Reina was still not allowed by the courts to see her baby even with the calls to reunite the two. Around a week after, October 9, baby River passed away from acute respiratory distress syndrome. Even with the passing of her daughter, she was not permitted to see her even in baby River's dying hours. Originally, the Manila Regional Trial Court gave Reina a three-day furlough but shortened it to six hours, three hours for the wake of baby River and the other three hours for the burial.

On the day of the funeral, there were around 43 state forces that were deployed. Reina was even seen on her knees begging the police to start the burial procession at 11:30 in the morning but was not allowed. Activists and progressive groups were also not allowed to hold a protest outside the funeral home. It was also reported that the hearse carrying baby River sped up which led to her relatives running after the hearse. Reina's parents and legal counsel pleaded to remove her handcuffs so she could hug the coffin for one last time, but until the end, she was deprived of it.

On July 17, 2022, the Manila Regional Trial Court acquitted Reina, together with the two activists, on their charges as the prosecution failed to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Cora Agovida

At the dawn of October 31, 2019, approximately 15 to 20 state forces from the Philippine National Police (PNP) and CIDG raided the home of Cora Agovida and her husband Michael Tan Bartolome. Cora was GABRIELA Manila's chairperson at the time of arrest and his husband Michael was an educational campaign officer of KADAMAY Metro Manila.

Their arrest was still during the crackdown on activists during the Duterte administration. The couple was faced with search warrants issued by Judge Cecilyn Villavert of Quezon City Regional Trial Court, the same judge who has issued tons of warrants on trumped-up charges against activists. She is also the same judge who issued the search warrant of Reina and the two activists who were arrested.

"Dapa! Dapa! Dapa!" (Get down! Get down! Get down!) With no introduction, these were the first words that were heard from the state forces after barging their way in. The couple were quickly pointed by guns and forced to lie face down. They were handcuffed immediately and even ordered not to look back.

"Diyan, diyan ilagay." (There, put it there.) The couple heard a man saying while hearing other footsteps moving around. Their children, aged 2 and 10 at the time, were brought into the other room. After around 15 to 30 minutes, the SWAT turned on the lights. A man in civilian clothing read aloud the search warrant and were only about to start the search.

Roughly about two minutes after the search had ended when they "retrieved" a .45 caliber pistol, two grenades, and fake IDs bearing Cora's information. The couple was brought to the Manila Police District and charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives, a violation of RA 9516.

While the couple were being escorted in the vehicle during their arrest, their children were separated and were then missing for more than 18 hours until fellow activists searched and found answers. They were later on put under the custody of the Manila Rehabilitation Action Center but were requested to transfer the custody to the Children's Rehabilitation Center by the couple. 

On November 24, 2021, Cora and Michael were acquitted of their fabricated charges. The Manila Regional Trial Court noted breaches of protocol by law enforcement that ultimately led to their acquittal.

First, the "knock and announce" principle that requires officers to notify the accused of their warrant upon entry to the premises. The court also found inconsistencies in the sworn statements of the police. Second, the prosecution witnesses were also inconsistent in identifying the exact locations where the alleged firearms and explosives were recovered. This raised the credibility of their testimonies.

In addition, the court criticized the prosecution for not properly documenting how the evidence was handled, from seizure to presentation. On the day of the arrest (October 31), the items were recovered but were only turned over on December 16, more than a month since the seizure of the items. The prosecution also failed to prove the basis for applying the search warrant against them.

Felicidad “Pidad” Caparal

In photo: Felicidad Caparal

On her way to Northern Samar to tend to her sick mother, Felicidad Caparal was abducted by state forces on January 27, 2009. She intends to bring her mother to Manila for medications. Pidad was held incommunicado and was missing for nine days. Her family grew concerned when she stopped communicating with her husband. It was suspected that she was abducted after leaving the ferry connecting between Sorsogon and Samar as this was when her text messages abruptly stopped.

On February 4, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) 8th Infantry Division presented Pidad as one of the high officials of the New People's Army (NPA) to the local radio station. She was also convicted last September 2003 for invented charges of multiple murders for her "involvement" in a December 2002 ambush by the NPA in Catarman, Northern Samar where two soldiers were killed. However, Pidad was eight months pregnant with her first child during the said ambush. She was also in Manila joining mass actions with progressive groups.

Pidad is a peasant organizer and a national staff member of Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA). To this date, she is detained in prison at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City.

A weapon of intimidation

Recently, reports surfaced on the degrading and intrusive strip searches conducted at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP). These invasive procedures, exceeding legal boundaries and causing deep humiliation, raise serious concerns about human rights violations and the erosion of dignity for these women seeking a moment of connection with their husbands.

Three women, who are wives of political prisoners, underwent in what they described as a "degrading and traumatic" strip search last April 21. This was said to be "orders from above" even if the wives have pleaded multiple times that they do not carry any illegal drugs or items.

The wives were forced to sign a waiver that they would undergo strip searches which violates the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and that this kind of search should only be done "only if absolutely necessary".

From the accounts of the wives, they were asked to strip their clothing until their undergarments. They were also made to squat three times, some were made to squat ten times fully naked. One of the wives was even asked to repeat the procedure at least ten times because she was told that she was not doing it properly. They were also asked to bend over with both of their hands on their buttocks and make sure that their private parts were visible to their body searcher as if waiting for something to come out of their bodies.

These traumatic and shameful experiences made the wives of the political prisoners think twice about visiting their beloved husbands amidst the longing. One of the wives said that she could not afford to face being stripped down and searched again by these body searchers.

This was not the first time that a relative of a political prisoner was subjected to strip search. Last January 2023, the daughter of a political prisoner was also subjected to a strip search at the Metro Manila District Jail in Camp Bagong Diwa.

These illegal strip searches directed at relatives of political prisoners represent a disturbing violation of human rights and family privacy. These actions not only inflict emotional distress but also raise serious concerns about the motives and methods employed by state forces. Demands for a thorough investigation and accountability for those responsible are essential. Furthermore, the incident underscores the urgent need for reforms within the prison system to ensure humane treatment and respect for the dignity of all, regardless of their relationship to these individuals.

As of writing, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) has "immediately stopped" the conduct of strip search and cavity search on persons deprived of liberty visitors. Kapatid, a support group for families and friends of political prisoners, said in a statement that they hope that this order will permanently translate into full compliance with international human rights standards. However, BuCor Division on Intelligence and Investigation "invited" Kapatid's spokesperson about the previous complaints. They deem that these invitations from BuCor are coercive and a form of intimidation. Their legal counsel has also reiterated that these search procedures are intrusive and these invitations are highly troubling.

Activists are not terrorists

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has recently declared that red-tagging as a threat to a person's fundamental rights. The high court recognized that red-tagging, alongside vilification and guilt by association, can create a dangerous effect, jeopardizing an individual's right to life, liberty, and security. This decision paves the way for legal recourse against red-tagging, potentially protecting activists and others from harassment, violence, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. This can also potentially justify the issuance of a writ of amparo to protect them and their safety.

A mother’s love 

These stories remind us of the immense sacrifices made in the pursuit of justice and the enduring strength of the maternal bond. While these mothers may have experienced motherhood differently through the marginalization of prison walls, their unwavering commitment to their cause and their love for their families serve as a reminder that mothers are one of the strongest women out there. As we celebrate motherhood, let us not forget these women, their fight for their advocacies, and the sacrifices they make behind bars.

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