Christina Palabay bit her lip and closed her eyes as the mobile phone beeped a text message alert.
“Please, please,” the secretary general of rights group Karapatan muttered. “No more delays, please.”
Palabay opened her eyes, screamed and hugged a fellow rights worker beside her.
“Ka Bart’s having his medical exams now!” Karapatan staff cheered.
Palabay and more than a 100 other para-legals, lawyers, and support groups for political prisoners nationwide have been sprinting across courtrooms nationwide since August 5, to secure the release of 22 National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultants in time for the resumption of long-stalled peace talks.
This was after the Supreme Court ruled on August 5 that local courts have the jurisdiction over release proceedings for jailed NDF consultants.
The process of releasing political prisoners, including rebel consultants arrested despite an agreement on safety and immunity guarantees, caused a slight delay in the resumption of peace talks between President Rodrigo Duterte’s government and Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency.
The 62-year-old “Ka Bart” is Tirso Alcantara, former spokesman for the NDF-Southern Tagalog region in the 1986-1987 peace talks. He was the fall guy for every charge frustrated Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) officials had wanted to slap on the late Gregorio Rosal (Ka Roger), the elusive chief of the New People’s Army Melito Glor Command.
"New cases are filed against him every so often," Palabay told ABS-CBNNews. "Different judges have different procedures. Some allow one release process and bail for a bunch of related cases. Others insist on bail for each charge. We didn't want new complications."
So far, eight of 22 detained NDF consultants, and holders of immunity guarantees have walked free: Alcantara, Alan Jazmines, Renante Gamara and Ernesto Lorenzo were released late afternoon from Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan.
Released Tuesday and early Wednesday were Kennedy Bangibang, Ruben Saluta, Jaime Soledad. Couple Alex and Winona Birondo were released on humanitarian grounds. Iloilo-based NDF consultant Concha Araneta Bocala was also released late afternoon.
Palabay expects couple Benito and Wilma Tiamzon to walk out of prison Thursday as the last two release orders were signed by courts in the Visayas today.
Earlier, the Supreme Court confirmed the conditional liberty of NDF consultants Randal Echanis and Vicente Ladlad, who have long been out on bail.
Rafael Baylosis, also an NDF consultant, came out of hiding Monday to post bail. All three are also attending the peace talks in Oslo, Norway, scheduled to start on August 22.
Soledad was the first of the released political prisoners to arrive at a late night forum organized by Karapatan and the Bagong Alyangsang Makabayan (Bayan).
He was immediately mobbed by well-wishers, a scene replicated with each arrival.
Palabay said there was pressure because both sides did not want any more delays in the peace talks.
Unsaid was a general concern among legal and underground activists – that the volatile Duterte could start issuing unilateral conditions and start a new round of acrimonious exchanges with NDF senior political consultant Jose Maria Sison.
In what was billed as friendly, two-hour meeting this week, Duterte told NDF consultants he is committed to peace talks. He also asked them to forget the harsh words exchanged with Sison.
Kin of detainees expressed awe at the hard work of the 100-strong “Team 22”, including members of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, Public Interest Law Center, Karapatan, the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao, the Public Attorney’s Office, private lawyers and Hustiya, composed of the families of political prisoners.
“It was exciting and liberating,” said Edre Olalia, secretary general of the NUPL. “It was and still is a protracted and spiraling roller coaster ride, where you don’t see the sudden twists, turns and twirls until they (detainees) walk finally.”
Alcantara thanked supporters who had camped out for two days outside Camp Bagong Diwa.
“Sobrang pagsisikap ng mga abogado at paralegal, sa kung ano anong requirement na binaba ng management,” Alcantara said. “All of us spent the last few days sleepless.” (Our paralegals and lawyers worked so hard to meet all these requirements raised by the courts.)
Exchange of barbs
Jazmines said jailed consultants closely followed the testy exchanges between President Rodrigo Duterte and NDF chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison.
“But we knew there were other more important issues to resolve,” he said.
Jazmines called the exchanges “sidelines”. “We have different ways of looking at issues,” he pointed out, “including on drugs, on extra-judicial killings, ceasefire and landmines.”
“Other issues carry more weight,” Jazmines said. NDF consultants, he added, just focused on their roles in the peace talks when both panels are expected to thresh out a joint agreement on socio-economic reforms.
While Jazmines said detainees tried to ride out the little storms with “a positive spirit,” there were instances when detainees felt come concern, according to Alcantara.
“But we told ourselves, as long as he (Duterte) doesn’t say, ‘I don’t want peace talks anymore,” as long as he doesn’t say ‘stop’, then there is hope.
“Tough talk is normal,” Alcantara said. “The important thing is, that both sides have mutual trust and a genuine desire to see peace and development.”
He also said the consultants belief that they are all unjustly detained bolsters their strength and rebels expect the two panels to affirm previous agreements, including the one granting immunity guarantees to negotiators and consultants.
As rights workers awaited the arrival of the Bicutan-based detainees, they exchanged photos – lawyer Jon Montemayor sleeping on the floor of Camp Crame, other counsels and paralegals on the steps of courtrooms, or huddled over reams of documents.
They swapped jokes that nevertheless highlighted the serious security risks faced by the released detainees.
One zealous para-legal from Kalinga refused to turnover Bangibang to Karapatan national staff.
“He took his job very seriously, he interrogated our staff, insisted on taking photographs of them and our vehicles,” Palabay said. “When he finally agreed to turn over Kennedy, we discovered there was no other guide. He did it alone, went around to ensure all required documents were signed.”
Paralegals tried to calm each other as they tried to lower bail costs, speed up the signing of release documents.
Comrades teased Jazmines, who is known for shunning t-shirts in the overheated jail cells, on the many times he had to put on, and take off a polo shirt readied for his release.
As the freed prisoners met with supporters, they urged a continued campaign for the release of some 500 other political detainees.
Palabay and rights workers, Olalia, Montemayor and other lawyers, have hundreds of hours of hard work ahead of them.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.