In the morning of July 15, 2011, Mariano Umbrero, a political prisoner, died at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) Hospital. Four days after, on July 19, 2011, he was given by the president an executive clemency. When asked why, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte admitted that Malacañang was not informed that Tatay Umbrero has already died earlier.
This incident, more than any other recently, defines the current Aquino administration’s handling of its human rights commitment. It responds to human rights issues such as the human rights compensation bill, the Marcos burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and the passage of the law criminalizing enforced disappearance excruciatingly slow. It has not even approved the CHR’s National Human Rights Plan and even plan to replace the Presidential Human Right Committee (PHRC) with an inter-agency body without the participation of the human rights community.
This kind of a response is expected of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration. In the Aquino administration, with its avowed legacy of democracy and human rights, it is raising quite a few eyebrows not only in the local and international human rights community but even in the wider public. It seems that human rights is still subject to political expediency and can be handled opportunistically as public sentiment react to human rights issues.
A case in point here is the criminal classification of and handling of the various cases of convicted political prisoners. These should have been handled separately from the cases of common criminals and subjected to different criteria and procedures. The model here is the way the Diokno Commission–way back in 1986–handled the political cases. A review of the relevant procedures for parole, executive clemency, and humanitarian exemptions should be done.
Precisely, this is the concrete demand of the political prisoners who are now in their fifth day of a hunger strike, which was precipitated by the death of Tatay Umbrero. The request for him in March 2011 to die in peace in the bosom of his family was a humanitarian one, considering his 4th-stage cancer and old age. The human rights community supported his request, addressing the Aquino government to immediately grant it. The Commission on Human Rights and Department of Justice Secretary de Lima endorsed this.
The Aquino administration took all of four months to act on the request. My own opinion here is that the urgency of the situation should already have triggered easier and faster response such as an immediate release to an authority (church or public official) while formal legal processes are being executed for an eventual executive clemency. The Aquino administration should have exerted the necessary effort to do a humanitarian act.
Now, there is the nationwide hunger strike of political prisoners to deal with. I hope that the Aquino administration–at the highest level–pay attention to this because time is of the essence. We know the timetable of fastings and hunger strikes since the time of the Marcos dictatorship (including Ninoy Aquino’s own fasting) and that there is no luxury of time here. There should be a cabinet-level negotiator to attend to the demands and to end the hunger strike as soon as possible. At the same time, the hunger strike should define reasonable and doable demands.
The key here is to make sure that human rights prevail, including the rights of political prisoners. We do not want this Aquino government to be tainted by the death of a single political prisoner under its watch. Free all political prisoners!