issue 205 - March 1990
Photo: Peter Stalker
An afternoon in jail with
four peasant leaders
I'm a bit surprised to have been let into the jail in Baguio - a city 150 miles north of Manila. But this is the city jail rather than the military one and the warden doesn't seem to mind stray visitors. He's a bit preoccupied when I arrive since they have just counted the prisoners and are one short. The missing guest is discovered (I think he was above our heads painting the ceiling) and I am allowed through.
Ernie Villajuan is one of four peasant leaders imprisoned here. He says the warden is friendly because he thinks they are innocent. They were originally in the military jail and had a much tougher time.
'Many of us were tortured physically and mentally. We suffered electrocution, continued beatings, burning with cigarette butts and kicking. Plastic covers over our mouths. Continuous interrogation for 24 hours. It was very terrible.'
The men belong to the Alliance of Peasant Workers of Central Luzon (AMJL). They had come to Baguio to organize a farmers' conference on the recent land-reform law. But they never got a chance to start talking. Military intelligence officers appeared one night and arrested 14 of them.
'They searched the house,' he says, 'and did not see explosives or subversive documents or any illegal documents so they had to plant them. We were charged with possession of explosives and firearms.
'They said that the AMJL is a communist front and that we are members of the New People's Army. According to them there were explosives, live ammunition, hand grenades, and calibre-38 weapons as well as subversive documents.'
It's difficult to hear what is being said because there's a terrific amount of banging and sawing coming at us from all directions. It sounds as though someone is sawing a hole in the roof, though since it is the police station upstairs that would seem a little pointless.
One half of the cell has a table where they eat and work while the section to the right contains the bunks and the cooking area. Their walls are covered with posters. One from a church human-rights group says: I am the Lord, I have given you as a covenant to the people. to set free those who work in the dark prison'.
The other ten members of the union were released on bail but all 14 are still awaiting trial. Even the four who remain here can consider themselves fortunate: hundreds of other union leaders and peasant activists have been killed since Mrs Aquino came to power. In 1989 alone there were 773 documented human-rights violations against farmers - ranging from illegal arrest to 'salvaging' (killing in secret). Around a third of all individuals arrested are tortured.
As we talk, Tony Barlongo is cooking fish for their tea - it was brought in yesterday by his brother. There is a pile of half-finished lampshades in the corner of the cell. They explain that all the sawing comes from prisoners making wooden handicrafts.
'We make them out of native materials to earn a little money. Some little paintings or lampshades, or picture frames. We always try to do something with a political meaning. Usually we put in a card with a slogan like "free all political prisoners in the Philippines".'
Every so often a warder comes by with the keys and we can be let out to walk around. The prisoners in the cell next door are making pictures from wood veneers - to guitar accompaniment. Out in the exercise yard they are practising for the prison basketball championships.
When we get back Ernie shows me a letter he has received from Anne Marie - an Amnesty International supporter in Scotland.
'We've had support from Amnesty people in Australia, the UK and Canada. We'd like you to thank all those organizations abroad who want to fight for our human rights.'
Their families have had to manage at home without them - particularly hard on Tony's family since he is the only breadwinner. 'But that,' says Ernie, 'doesn't stop them carrying on the fight for a genuine land reform.'
We talk for hours about everything from Nicaragua and agriculture in the UK to the latest developments in Eastern Europe - about which they seem to know more than I do. Tony wants to know if I will stay for dinner. But it's getting dark and I just want to check that the warder is still around with the key.