By UCA News
By Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso*
(UCA News) — In the Philippines, red-tagging does not raise eyebrows in the human rights community.
Fresh in our memories is the brutal killing of Randall Echanis on Aug. 10, 2020, inside his apartment. He suffered multiple gunshot and stab wounds, including one to the aorta. This brutal killing was followed by many others.
Many more have been imprisoned, others disappeared, on mere suspicion of being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The Republic Act of 2020, or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 Republic Act 11479, which took effect on July 3, 2020, gives security forces powers to go after people on mere suspicion of being terrorists.
Human rights organizations believe that the purpose of the act is to stifle dissent and target government critics.
Maria Salome “Sally” Ujano, a children’s rights advocate, is one of the victims of this law.
As the Filipino people were looking forward to the Christmas holidays last year, 64-year-old Sally was arrested by police on Nov. 14 in Malolos Bulacan. She is being detained in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, Manila, on rebellion charges filed against her in 2006.
She is accused of being a high-ranking official of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), involvement in the ambush of two military personnel in Quezon province in 2005, and having laid low for more than a decade.
Because we have distinct advocacies, I have not worked with Sally and do not know her very well. But when I was secretary-general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) for many years, I met her often because our respective offices were in the same building in Quezon City. I myself can attest that she was never hiding for 15 years.
Prior to her arrest, Sally was the national coordinator of the Philippines Against Child Trafficking (PACT), a job she cannot do while in detention. During the alleged crime, she was the executive director of the Women’s Crisis Center. Both institutions are committed to work earnestly for women and children’s rights, more specifically against all forms of violence and trafficking in women and children.
It has been more than three months since Sally’s arrest and detention. A petition signed by groups and individuals appeals for bail for four reasons — her alleged guilt is not established and she has not been in hiding for years; she respects legal processes and, in fact, trained the police and social workers in ensuring a rights-based approach to handling cases; she is a senior citizen with heart ailments, thus vulnerable to Covid-19; and she has the right to bail and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Sally’s 34-year-old son, Klaro Manuel Ujano, said his mother “is detained in an overcrowded jail which puts her at risk of contracting infectious diseases.”
As well as heart disease, he said, she also has hypertension and osteoarthritis of the spine and both knees, which could worsen in prison.
What is adding to the family burden is the loss of income she should have been earning as national coordinator of the PACT. Prior to her detention, Sally was looking forward to a well-deserved retirement this year. However, her detention is depriving her of this most awaited time of her life where she could have enjoyed the company of her family.
Petitioners at home and abroad are appealing to the courts to quash Sally’s case and release her, taking into consideration her health situation, her age, the detention conditions and the length of time for cases like hers to be resolved.
The Philippines commemorates the 36th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution this week.
One of the first gracious political acts of the late former president Corazon Aquino was to free all political prisoners. The outgoing Duterte administration, notorious for almost innumerable drug-related extrajudicial executions, has to once and for all do something good for human rights, one of which should be the immediate and unconditional release of Sally Ujano. One of the important issues that the present candidates for the May 2022 elections should look at is the release of Sally Ujano and all political prisoners.
The UN Human Rights Council will hold its 49th session in Geneva, Switzerland, soon. Being a party to most of the core international human rights treaties, yet one of the most notorious in its record of human rights violations, the Philippines has to sincerely manifest its commitment to improving its human rights record by releasing all its political prisoners. It is one of the conditions for the attainment of a just and lasting peace.
Free Sally Ujano. Free all political prisoners.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.