“Commitment na namin ‘to eh [This is our commitment],” said activist couple Cora Agovida and Michael Tan Bartolome of their decision to devote their lives for the poor, while recalling their experiences behind the steel bars of Manila City Jail for two years on trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. They were acquitted of the charges and released on November 24.

Despite being deprived of liberty, they continued to live by their principles.

Similar to other victims of political persecution, the activist couple was accused of firearm and explosives raps from pre-dawn raids by police and warrants from Executive Judges who before had the power to issue them outside their own cities or towns. The two was labelled as “terrorists” despite their main preoccupation as urban poor and women rights organizers in the capital region.

Agovida burst into tears as she thanked the people who helped campaign for their freedom.  She also affirmed that their struggle for freedom continues especially at the helm of a “tyrannical and fascistic regime” under the Duterte administration.

“Kahit ano man ‘yung gawin muli ng estado sa pamamagitan ng National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) ay handa kaming harapin ulit ‘yon at patuloy na manindigan.” Agovida stated.

[Whatever the state does again through the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, we are ready to face it again and continue to take a stand.]

“Hindi pa rin dito natatapos yung paglaban ng paghahanap ng hustisya lalo’t marami pang nakakulong katulad nating mga aktibista na inakusahan ng mga gawa-gawang kaso ng rehimeng ito,” her husband Bartolome added.

[The struggle to seek justice does not end here, especially since there are many more imprisoned activists like us who have been accused of fabricated cases by this regime.]

Rights group Karapatan reported that there were 76 arrested based on search warrants issued by QC Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert since 2019, and 22 of them remain in prison.

Separation from children

The couple last saw their children in December 2019 when they gave them to Agovida’s sister. Since then, there was no further interaction between the parents and the children.

“Kapag nasa kulungan ka, iyon yung isa sa pinakamabigat na struggle, yung pangugulila.” Agovia said.

While one could eventually adjust to life in jail, longing for their two children was an enduring pain.

Not only Cora and Michael have been deprived to be with their small children. Political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino was also separated from her newborn child, baby River, who died weeks after due to acute respiratory distress syndrome. Similar to what happened with political prisoner Nona Espinosa’s child, baby Carlen, who also died because of health complications right after being separated from her mother.

Agovida, Bartolome, Nasino along with Ram Carlo Bautista and Alma Moran were arrested in Manila only a week apart in 2019, all on Villavert’s warrants and are collectively known as the Manila 5.  

Adjustments in jail

While in jail, Bartolome enrolled in the Alternative Learning System (ALS) while Agovida taught their fellow persons-deprived-of-liberty (PDL) on basic subjects.

At first, both had been culture-shocked due to the over-congestion. They also experienced how the facilities and the food were sub-par.

It must be noted that the Manila City Jail, which was then referred to as the Old Bilibid Prison, is one of the most overcrowded in the world with more that 4,418 PDLs accounted.

According to Cora, more than 150 women PDL were crammed in a single cell as if they were “sardines” in a dense space for a cell given their voluminous number. She shared that they would sleep in a tilted position in order to fit, there were also inmates who would sleep under the bunk beds just to fill in the limited area within the cell.

Agovida and Bartolome were not able to see each other. And they would communicate only in letters that they secretly exchange between dorm rooms.

“Syempre inaral naman namin ‘yung sitwasyon kung paano mag-blend in at hindi rin naman natin binitawan yung ginagawa natin na maging bukas sa pakikipag-aralan sa mga karanasan nila,” Bartolome said while recollecting their adjustments and observations during the early months in jail.

[Of course, we studied the situation on how to blend in and we also did not stop trying to learn from other’s experiences.]

The couple also recounted how aggravated their situation in jail was since the onset of the pandemic last year. For example, they were restricted with the food budget amounting to only 70 pesos per inmate for the whole day. Their water supply of a 3.75-litre canister, like those of the containers of mayonnaise, would be saved for their bath and laundry.

Given these grim situations, the activist couple called on the rechanneling of NTF-ELCAC funds for programs that would be beneficial for the people, inside or outside of jail.

“Sana ay ituon nila ito [NTF-ELCAC funds] sa mga iba pang serbisyo. Sa karanasan po namin sa loob ng piitan, yung mga nakasama po namin, sana naisip nila na kahit mga nakakulong ay doon na lang sana nila inilaan yung magandang serbisyo. Ni-rehabilitate na lang nila ‘yon kasi matindi po ang kalagayan sa loob ng piitan,” Agovida shared.

[We hope they would rechannel these on other services. From our experience while inside jail, we hope they thought on how they could have allotted funds for better services for those in jail. We hope they rehabilitated them ‘cause the situation inside jails are really dire.]

Seeking justice for denied rights

“Mababawi ba natin yung dalawang taon na nawala sa kanila? Na wala sa kanilang mga anak para makasama ang kanilang mga magulang? Sana ay matugunan ng ating justice system, matugunan yung ganitong lapses at matugunan yung ganitong pang-aabuso,” National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) Atty. Kathy Panguban mused.

[Can we make up for the two years they lost? That the children were separated from their parents? I hope our justice system will address such lapses and address such abuses.]

The activist couple then encouraged the people to be vigilant and critical ahead of the electoral season.

“Hindi ito yung panahon ng pagsuko talaga lalo na kung gusto nating kamtim yung totoong justice,” the couple asserted.

[This is not the time to yield, especially if truly want true justice.]

The activist couple continues to work with their legal counsels to discuss redress and accountability for the injustice they suffered.


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