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Whenever the issue of political prisoners comes up, I remember an incident that happened two days before the May 2007 elections.

I was having dinner with campaign volunteers after a grueling sortie all over Southern Leyte. All of a sudden, around 10 men in civilian clothes, some in shorts and undershirts, barged into the house we were staying, brandishing M-16 rifles and .45 cal pistols. I remember thinking, is this how it all ends?

They proceeded to arrest one of our campaigners, Vincent “Bebot” Borja, a labor union organizer, regional coordinator of the Anakpawis party-list group, and national council member of the Kilusang Mayo Uno.

We protested the arrest. Upon our insistence, the arresting team, composed of soldiers from the 19th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army and led by a Lt. Col. Lope Dagoy, showed a photocopy of an old arrest warrant containing the alleged names of New People’s Army hitmen. It did not include Bebot’s name. They took him, anyway.

To cut the long story short, Bebot was detained and charged with murder. It took three long years before the military’s sole witness finally appeared in court, only to say that he did not know Bebot or recognize him at all. The case was dismissed.

Bebot’s ordeal is not an isolated case. There are hundreds of political prisoners like him—trade union organizers, peasant leaders, human rights defenders, activists, even ordinary members of people’s organizations—who are labeled as rebels, charged with ordinary crimes, illegally arrested, and unjustly detained because of their political beliefs or activities.

According to the human rights group Karapatan, almost all of the 392 political prisoners languishing in our jails are accused of being members or accomplices of the NPA. Yet they are charged with ordinary crimes, all nonbailable. Only three have actually been charged with rebellion, which is bailable in certain instances.

Clearly, the intention of these flimsy, often-trumped-up charges is not to convict but merely to subject activists to prolonged detention in order to derail and eventually stop their political activities.

Karapatan says the average detention period is 5-10 years, which is basically the time it takes for their cases to be dismissed. This takes a heavy toll on them, their families, and the communities they serve.

The existence of such prisoners of conscience is a slap on any country that claims to be democratic. President Duterte, even before he was sworn into office, said he was ready to grant amnesty to all political prisoners in order to jump-start the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

This is not a matter of mere goodwill. The release of political prisoners is in compliance with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law signed by the two parties in 1999, which states that persons engaged in rebellion but charged with ordinary crimes should be released immediately.

In addition, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees exempts negotiators and consultants on both sides from arrest, surveillance, or harassment.

More than this, releasing the political prisoners is a matter of giving justice to those whose rights have been blatantly violated.

In subsequent talks with the NDFP, both formal and informal, Mr. Duterte downgraded his original offer to 200 political prisoners, then to 130, comprising the sick and elderly. But up until the third round of talks this week, none has been released.

It would be wrong for the President to treat the political prisoners as a trump card, as he himself said in a recent speech. Political prisoners are people, not bargaining chips. Their release is a matter of adherence to basic human rights, something that the President cannot seem to grasp.#

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