By Kenneth Roland Guda, VERA Files
Ten years is an eternity, especially for those who have spent that time in prison, and for crimes they didn't commit, said a group of detainees at the Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.
This month, those detainees—mostly Bangsamoros from Basilan, Sulu and Zamboanga City—gathered to mark the decade since their arrest in 2001.
Inside their maximum-security prison, they received visitors, served chicken adobo, rice and iced tea, held a short program, and swapped stories of hardship, oppression, and loneliness. Most of all, they shared a call for justice.
"We have not lost hope, of course. But it's hard to hope. Sometimes, we have to accept our situation in order to survive," said Moner Saliddin, who was an engineering student when he was arrested in Basilan on July 13, 2001. He is one of the more than 100 Moro detainees who say they were tortured by their police and military captors.
Moner was among the organizers of the event to commemorate their decade behind bars. With the help of the Moro human rights activists from the Moro Christian People's Alliance (MCPA) and medical workers from the Health Action for Human Rights (HAHR), they also organized a medical mission for detainees who needed medical attention.
Crackdown in Basilan
"Ten years is a long time for innocent people," said Moner. But the wounds, he said, were still fresh, making it hard for some of the detainees to talk about their experiences.
For Omar Galo and Taufic Mumir, for instance, the circumstances of their arrest remain a blur. They were still minors—Omar was 16 and Taufic 14—when members of the Philippine Army arrested them in Basilan.
Omar recalls that he was alighting from boat on August 24, 2001 when he was accosted, he said, by members of the Special Action Force of the local unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and brought to Zamboanga.
During the interrogation, he said he was constantly asked to confess that he was one "Jojo Razon," an alleged member of the Abu Sayyaf. He said he repeatedly denied the accusation.
The beatings, Omar said, were a blur. He remembers being slapped around and punched. He vaguely recalls being allegedly electrocuted: clips attached to an electric current were placed on the side of his abdomen.
Taufic, meanwhile, remembers the early morning of March 30, 2002, when armed men barged into his house where he and his family were sleeping. He and two of his brothers were arrested, also without warrant, and brought to the headquarters of the Southern Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Zamboanga City.
Omar and Taufic became adults inside the prison, where they spend their time counting the days. Sometimes they would play basketball. Omar said "it had been years" since they were allowed sunning.
Omar and Taufic were one of many detainees who were arrested months after the initial crackdown in Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga that netted Moner, his father (released in 2004), and an initial 73 others.
There are other Moro detainees in the prison, who were arrested after the declared crackdown in 2001 but were charged with the same offenses as those of Manar, Omar, Taufic and the others.
One such detainee is Edwin Sawaldi, who is from Zamboanga City and was arrested on October 16, 2010. He said he sold cheap watches and belts for a living.
"They accused me of being someone named 'Osama'," recounted Edwin. After his arrest, he was blindfolded and brought to an unspecified location, where he claimed he was tortured. "Inside the cell, I was punched in my back. I was electrocuted. Forced to lie down, water was poured to my nose."
After a few days, Edwin said he was taken for a plane ride. Blindfolded, he was brought to what he later realized was an airbase. "In the cell there, they brought in another prisoner. He was not blindfolded, so he saw that he was brought to Villamor Air Base."
Still a few days later, Edwin was brought to Pasig, charged with kidnapping, as an alleged Abu Sayyaf member in Basilan in 2001. As with the others, he denies being a member of the bandit group.
Also incarcerated in the same prison is a group of young men, all in their 20s, who said they were students of the Alfarouq Islamic School in Puerto Princesa in Palawan when they were arrested on September 2007. They are Ibrahim Misuari, 22; Aisal Jala, 24; Omar Panagas, 28; Omar Ibno, 23; Jemar Alpha, 23; Hiya Arabain, 26; and Najer Daud, 24. They say they were tortured and accused of murder and of being members of the Abu Sayyaf.
According to Ibrahim, the group was accused of killing a certain Jemar Bairollah, who was a student of the same Islamic school. But Ibrahim says he never met their supposed victim, who dropped out two months before Ibrahim entered the school.
Ibrahim said they were arrested in different circumstances, but mostly while in school. They were all blindfolded, brought to an undisclosed location, and allegedly tortured. Ibrahim said he was heavily beaten. He claimed his tongue was even stapled, to force him to confess to the crime.
"My parents did not know where I was for two weeks," Ibrahim said. They were later brought to the Palawan Provincial Jail, then to Taguig, where they were arraigned before the Taguig Regional Trial Court.
Like most detainees, Ibrahim and the seven others said the hearings on their cases were few and far between. "There was a hearing last June 30, 2011, but the judge only checked the attendance of the suspects, then suspended the hearing."
Moner said this is also true with the cases against them. In the meantime, they wait. "I hope it will not take another 10 years before they set us free," said Moner.
(This story is part of the VERA Files project "Human Rights Case Watch" supported by The Asia Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")