By Rodrigo Bacus
Andrea Rosal, a political prisoner arrested for her community and human rights activism in the Philippines, was finally released from prison on Sept. 7 when the Regional Trial Court dismissed all the charges brought against her due to lack of probable cause. While in prison, she was subjected to harsh prison conditions and denied medical care. Her arrest and detention were especially problematic since she was seven months pregnant at the time of her arrest and faced two months of sub-standard conditions while carrying a baby. Her arrest and treatment while in state custody highlight the terrible detention conditions and the experiences of political prisoners in the Philippines. Since her release, Rosal has expressed a strong conviction to pursue justice for herself and other political prisoners in the Philippines. The egregiousness of Rosal’s detention exemplifies why human rights activists and defenders continue to decry the Philippine government’s policy of detaining political prisoners.
RED TAGGING OF ACTIVISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
The Philippine police and military arrested Rosal on March 27, 2014 and charged her for kidnapping and murder. News sources suggest that the real reason Rosal was arrested was because the Philippine government tagged her as a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed segment of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Red tagging is the practice of publicly labeling organizations or individual human rights defenders and activists as terrorists, communists or rebels by government actors, for the most part. Rosal is the daughter of the late Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal, who was the spokesperson for the Communist Party of the Philippines. Rosal’s mother may have also been a member of the NPA, and left Rosal to be raised by her relatives.
Rosal chose to live a different life from her parents and became a peasant community organizer with the Pagkakaisa at Ugnayan ng mga Magsasaka sa Laguna (PUMALAG, Unity of Farmers in Laguna). PUMALAG asserts the rights of farmers to their land and defends human rights issues of farmers, in general. Laying low was the only option for Rosal, who had been kidnapped by the government when she was just 5 years old in a ploy by the government to lure her father out of hiding. The government continues to tag Rosal because of her parents, and even before her arrest, the military had been surveilling her activities. Rosal herself believes that she was arrested solely on the suspicion that she was a member of the NPA. No charges against Rosal were filed in relation to government’s suspicion of her membership with that group.
Rosal’s arrest is an example of how the Philippine government uses red tagging to target its critics. The labeling is used to justify and legitimize human rights violations against human rights activists and defenders, including abuses like extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. In this case, the red tagging of Rosal resulted in her detention for a year, in difficult conditions, and the loss of a life she held dear to her.
ARREST AND INHUMANE DETENTION CONDITIONS
At the time of her arrest, Rosal was seven months pregnant. She was first detained in a small and hot cell run by the National Bureau of Investigation, the police sub-unit that had arrested her. While in jail, she complained of abdominal cramps, but was just told to fill out medical forms. She was only able to see her doctor two days later, and was prescribed hospital detention along with other procedures. Her request to be transferred to hospital detention was ignored, and she was transferred to a shared cell with 24 other female detainees. The cell was about 16 by 32 feet in size, with a window that did not allow enough fresh air or sunlight to stream in. Since Rosal’s arrest was so sudden, she was not able to bring any supplements relating to her pregnancy and had to eat prison rations that consisted of rice and a boiled fish or vegetable. Although Rosal is allergic to fish, she was neither allowed to cook her own food nor provided with alternate dining options. She also had to sleep on the floor because the bunk assigned to her was too high.
Article 10(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees that persons arrested or detained must be treated with dignity. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights protects the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health. Since the Philippines is a state party to both these conventions, the Filipino human rights group, KARAPATAN, suggests that the treatment of prisoners in general in the Philippines implicates these two provisions. In particular, the overemphasis in Philippine prisons on punitive punishment makes detainees vulnerable to inhumane treatment and conditions. The U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners and the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners both detail the rights of prisoners and how prison conditions can meet acceptable international standards. The Philippines should incorporate this guidance to ensure prisoners’ rights.
For pregnant women in detention such as Rosal, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that even more careful treatment needs to be contemplated. The WHO recommends that women should be imprisoned only when other alternatives are unavailable, particularly in the case of pregnant women. They also recommend that prison staff undergo gender-sensitivity training on various issues, including on adequate nutrition for pregnant detainees, breastfeeding and other types of care. Finally, the WHO emphasizes the importance of individualized health care for women. The detention conditions Rosal faced run counter to such recommendations and effectively punished her as a person held in pre-trial detention.
DEATH OF A CHILD AND A MOTHER’S GRIEF
Rosal’s experiences in detention would lead to even more tragic consequences as her case dragged on and her detention continued. On May 15, 2014, the Regional Trial Court granted Rosal’s request for hospitalization so that Rosal could deliver her baby. This request had been pending since Rosal’s doctor prescribed hospital detention two days after she was arrested. While Rosal was undergoing labor contractions, the police brought Rosal back and forth between the prison and the hospital in Manila. The police claimed that there was no available room for her. The distance Rosal traveled each time was around nine miles. She was not admitted to the hospital until May 16, 2014, a day after the court granted her request. On May 17, 2014, Rosal gave birth to her daughter, Diona Andrea Rosal. The very next day, on May 18, 2014, baby Diona died due to oxygen deficiency as a result of a lung infection (pneumonia) that had caused injury to her brain while on an artificial breathing machine. Rosal held her baby for the first time after she had already died
Dr. Beng Rivera-Reyes of the Health Alliance for Democracy suggests that prison conditions and failure to provide regular pre-natal checkups may have contributed to the baby’s health condition. In a statement to the press, KARAPATAN secretary general, Cristina Palabay said that “[The Philippine government’s] blatant disregard of the rights of Andrea, including her right to receive immediate medical care and be in an environment conducive for conceiving and delivering a healthy child, are apparent in this case.”
After the tragic death of her daughter, Rosal’s request to be temporarily released to bury her child was denied due to security reasons. Baby Diona was buried without the presence of her mother.
CONTEMPLATING CHANGE IN THE PHILIPPINE JUSTICE SYSTEM
In the shadow of Rosal’s arrest and the death of her child, criticism of the Philippine jail and justice system has been mounting. Yet these abuses continue. Another woman, Maria Miradel Torres, was red tagged and arrested while she was sick and four months pregnant. A spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology said, “Well, the BJMP facility is really not fit for pregnant women. But we are giving them the most comfortable accommodation and we send them to nearby government hospital if necessary.” Given the experience of Andrea Rosal, human rights organizations were skeptical. Similarly, Torres was sent to a female dormitory in a city jail even though a court ordered to transfer her to a hospital. She was able to deliver her baby in the past year without complications, but is now in danger of being separated from her child.
Although she had chosen a life of quiet activism, it is no surprise then that Rosal’s recent release only strengthened her conviction to continue fighting for the rights of prisoners and political prisoners in particular. Although acquitted of all charges, Rosal’s experiences in detention and the loss she had experienced amount to unjust punishments without a conviction, which is especially problematic for a person who had the right to be presumed innocent. Moreover, the Philippines continues to detain 527 political prisoners on trumped up charges. Political prisoners are targeted by the government and robbed of their right to speak out against the government and defend human rights. Other political prisoners facing the same detention conditions risk consequences similar to those of Rosal. Activists continue to call on the Philippine government to end red-tagging and counterinsurgency campaign as a tactic to undermine critical voices. They also call on the government to observe human rights laws, particularly those standards in treaties to which the Philippines is a state party, with respect to prison conditions and the treatment of female and pregnant prisoners.
Rodrigo Bacus is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo credit: Aapo Haapanen/Creative Commons