DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 09 December) – “Sorry, I cannot do that. ”
President Rodrigo Duterte said he will not release 130 political prisoners before Christmas day unless he receives a signed bilateral ceasefire agreement between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) peace panels and witnessed by the third party facilitator from the Royal Norwegian Government, claiming he has “conceded to the communists too much too soon.”
“I have conceded to the communists too much too soon. As yet, I have to see a substantive progress of the talks. They are asking for 130 detainees to be released, all NPAs (all members of the New People’s Army). Sorry, I cannot do that. I cannot do it because uubusin nila ang baraha ko” (I will lose all my cards), Duterte told reporters at the groundbreaking rites for the Bicol International Airport terminal in Legaspi City on Thursday afternoon.
In a statement on Friday (Dec. 9), NDF peace panel chair Fidel Agcaoili said Duterte’s latest pronouncement is “disturbing and disappointing, being a complete turnaround” from the commitments he made to him and NDF consultants Benito and Wilma Tiamzon during a dinner at the Legaspi Suites in Davao City on December 2 “where he categorically committed to pardoning 40 convicted political prisoners and releasing 130 sick and elderly political detainees before Christmas.”
Duterte said the political prisoners are his aces and if the NDF keeps asking for more prisoners to be released every meeting, it will be like playing a poker game. “Maubos ang baraha ko. I-release ko lahat yan, ano pa ang pag-usapan namin?” (I will lose all my cards. If I release all of them, what will we be talking about?), he said.
He said he wants a document from the government and NDF peace panels with the Norwegian facilitator as witness, “that there is an agreement for a ceasefire for an indefinite period until such time that we can sort out things…”
Agcaoili said the President’s branding of the political prisoners as “all NPA” is a “rash accusation” that “betrays his adherence to his predecessors’ policy and practice of detaining political prisoners on the basis of trumped-up criminal charges and using them as hostages to leverage and pressure the NDFP into an indefinite ceasefire or negotiated capitulation.”
He said Duterte’s allusion to the peace negotiations as a high-stakes poker game is “deplorable, as it tragically leads to the inhumane treatment of close to 400 political prisoners as trump cards and the callous sweeping aside of justice by his deft playing hand.”
The government facilitated the release of 22 political prisoners who are serving as NDF peace panel consultants shortly before the start of the first round of formal peace talks in Oslo, Norway in August.
Since the Duterte administration took over on June 30, the two parties have had two rounds of formal peace negotiations. Each party has declared a unilateral ceasefire in August. They were supposed to have come up with a bilateral ceasefire agreement in late October but no agreement has been forged.
“I do not want a war with anybody. I do not want to kill…I am tired of killing. Tapos na ako niyan,” Duterte said.
Later at the 7th anniversary of the Federalismo Alyansa ng Bikol, Duterte said he engaged in a long debate with the government peace panel on the matter of the release of 130 political prisoners.
“Ang sabi ko (I told them) ‘No, I will not give it to you. Mauubusan ako ng baraha’ (I will lose my cards). By the time … we have the grand finale…. wala na akong baraha (I won’t have any card). ..‘I have conceded so much too soon.’ That’s about it,” Duterte said.
But Duterte said he would release the 130 prisoners if he receives a signed ceasefire agreement.
“Give me a ceasefire agreement … and I will release the 130” (I will release the elderly and the sick first), he said, adding many of these detainees are 70 years old and are no longer physically fit to take up arms “pero ‘yung mga hardcore na mga NPA fighter, kalokohan yan…”
Agcaoili said Duterte’s “rash accusation” that the political prisoners are all NPA members is in “gross violation” of bilateral agreements such as the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed on March 14, 1998 and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) signed on February 24, 1995, which his administration has reaffirmed.
As a former prosecutor, Duterte “knows that the criminalization of political offenses violates Philippine and international jurisprudence as well,” Agcaoili added.
Thirteen political prisoners have died while in detention, 12 under previous administrations and one under the Duterte administration – the 66-year old Bernabe Ocasla who passed away on November 28.
“What brought about President Duterte’s change of heart in just a matter of days is for him to answer to the Filipino people, especially the families, relatives and supporters of the political prisoners whose hopes and trust in his word are fast eroding,” Agcaoili said, adding he can “still redeem himself in their eyes” if he “makes good his word of releasing all of the close to 400 political prisoners soon after a bilateral ceasefire agreement is signed.”
“His own pronouncements that he can release political prisoners within 48 hours belie previous statements by the OPAPP (Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process) and GRP peace panel that they have been working in earnest for the release of 50 to 200 political prisoners but that the judicial processes require some time to effect the release,” he said.
He said the NDF had announced it would sit down with the GRP peace panel and work on a bilateral ceasefire accord “and have it ready for signing by the third week of January by the parties’ respective principals.”
He explained that the bilateral ceasefire “can take effect in 48 hours, the timeframe within which the President said he would order the release of all the political prisoners.”
Agcaoili reiterated that NDF’s stand on the release and amnesty of political prisoners “as a matter of justice and compliance with agreements,” noting it will serve as impetus to a more stable ceasefire and vastly improve the atmosphere for negotiations on socio-economic reforms.”
The third round of formal peace talks has been scheduled for January 18 to 25 in Rome. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)