LAST MONDAY, I wrote about recalling the horrors of martial law, which had been declared 40 years earlier. That same day, I had a chance encounter with a young woman named Kerima Tariman Acosta, whose husband Ericson has now been languishing in a Samar jail for a year—a political prisoner under a new regime four decades after martial law.
My interest in the case was piqued not just because of the obvious irony, but because Ericson was a former editor of the Philippine Collegian and a poet—in other words, a brother-in-arms as a writer.
Ericson was arrested on Feb. 13, 2011 by soldiers of the Philippine Army near San Jorge in Samar, without a warrant; Kerima says that he was carrying only his laptop, a cellphone, and some money, having been conducting human rights research in that militarized community on behalf of a peasant group, Kapawa. Later, however, his captors produced a grenade, which they claimed Ericson had in his pocket; they would later charge him with illegal possession of explosives, which Ericson vehemently denies, saying that the grenade was planted to link him to the New People’s Army.
Upon his arrest, says Kerima, Ericson was interrogated for 44 hours, tortured, and forced to admit that he was an NPA member. He was moved from detention in a military camp to the Calbayog sub-provincial jail, but soldiers from the local infantry battalion were sent to camp out in this jail to guard him.
Meanwhile, his case has been crawling through the courts. Prominent legal and artists’ groups have rallied behind Ericson’s release—including the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which has taken on his defense, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and International PEN, among others—arguing that he was arrested illegally to begin with and was tortured, and that the charge against him was manufactured on the spot. Still, he remains in prison, despite an urgent plea from his family for his release, or at least for an opportunity for him to be seen by a doctor, because he had been sick with renal and prostate problems even before his arrest.
I’ve been a firm believer in President Noynoy Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” campaign, but something like this makes me wonder how well we’ve truly exorcised—if we have, at all—the demons of our martial-law past, particularly in terms of reining in the abuses of our military, and of educating them (and thereby ourselves) on the value of respecting human rights.
We’ve let convicted murderers and child-rapists go free, although PNoy’s men can say that that was under a previous and truly morally abominable administration. Ericson Acosta was arrested under PNoy’s watch. What’s worse, it turns out that Ericson is hardly alone. When human rights activists tracked him down in Catbalogan, they found five more political prisoners in the city jail. These activists estimate that more than 350 people still languish in Philippine prisons because of their political beliefs.
The President can reclaim the moral high ground not just by remembering what Marcos and his military did to his father—as he did on the 40th anniversary of martial law—but by acting differently and speedily to bring justice to these cases, as he would have wished someone did for Ninoy, and not simply fall back on the old Palace excuse of “Let the military do its job.” Experience shows that when you do that, you let the butchers loose on the people. I haven’t lost hope in reform within the military mindset, but it takes a Commander in Chief to set the tone and give the orders.
If the government thinks that the evidence against Acosta is strong and irrefutable, it should prove its case, and prove it quickly. Otherwise, it should free Ericson Acosta and the others like him—arrested for patently political reasons 40 years after martial law—to put that era squarely in the past.
* * * * *
ON A happier note, I’d like to mention a new book whose author exemplifies the best of what a Filipino can be and can achieve internationally. Dr. Jojo Sayson is a Fil-Am physical therapist and motivational speaker, a UST graduate who has done pioneering research work for NASA and who heads a foundation that helps children with cancer and other debilitating diseases.
His biography, Springboard to Heaven: The Jojo Sayson Adventure (Image Workshop Press, 2012)—co-authored and edited by biographer and film director James Riordan—chronicles the journey of a poor Manileño boy who leaves to work in the US with $170 in his pocket and who goes on to become a scientist engaged in finding solutions to the problem of lower back pain—not my back or yours, but that of the NASA astronaut, who has to endure weeks if not months of microgravity in space, which puts unusual stresses on the body. To understand this problem more thoroughly, Sayson himself went through microgravity training, and out this came a landmark paper published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine in 2008. Jojo must have enjoyed the experience, because he subsequently applied to join NASA’s astronaut corps as a mission specialist for 2013.
To quote from the book: “Astronauts report that the ‘fetal tuck or cannonball position,’ with knees-to-chest, relieves their back pain. The article presents research and references to describe the possible reasons for this relief, their clinical consequences and the rationale of the numerous proposed exercise countermeasures suggested for astronauts to perform in space to increase spinal loading. (These countermeasures also may prevent herniated disks which can occur post-flight.) The authors also suggest the possibility of employing, in conjunction with the countermeasures, a harness designed by Sayson to stimulate spinal compression and reduce disc expansion.”
That’s heavy technical stuff, but what’s more interesting and important for most of us Pinoys is to see another kababayan opening new doors abroad not just for Filipinos, but for humanity itself.
The book is now available at National Book Store, Powerbooks, and Bestsellers.
Doy, vic manarang, nilo tayag
gringo, mike defensor, gary olivar, miro quimbo, oying rimon
Randy david, raul pangalangan