Sunday, August 31, 2008

RANDY ECHANIS AND INHUMAN JAIL CONDITIONS

Being jailed is not new to KMP leader Randall Echanis, 60. His detention in January this year following his arrest in Bago City, Negros Occidental is his third already. It is the prison conditions he is now in that are new to him.

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 30, August 31-September 6, 2008


Being jailed is not new to Randall Echanis, 60, deputy secretary-general for external affairs of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP or Peasant Movement of the Philippines). An activist for decades now, he had been incarcerated during the Marcos and Aquino administrations. His detention in January this year following his arrest in Bago City, Negros Occidental is his third already.

It is the prison conditions he is now in that are new to him.

Following his arrest on murder charges stemming from allegations that he masterminded a purge within the ranks of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in Inopacan, Leyte in 1984, Echanis –- who was in prison at the time the alleged purge took place –- was detained at the Provincial Jail in Palo, Leyte. In late July, he was transferred to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center in Camp Crame, but, only a few days later, was again transferred, this time to the Manila City Jail.

When Bulatlat visited to interview him for this article, he was sitting in a cubicle, one of many in Dorm 3 and other “dormitories” at the said jail. His cubicle is just big enough to fit a bed on which Echanis –- who is of average height for a Filipino -– could not even lie down with his body fully stretched. From his cubicle you could barely see the outside of the jail: poet Amado V. Hernandez, who was imprisoned in Muntinlupa on trumped-up “rebellion complexed with murder and other crimes” charges in the 1950s, was “lucky” he could even see “isang dipang langit” (a stretch of sky) from his cell, because Echanis can see less than that.

The cubicles are either for sale for anywhere between P5,000 ($108.88 at the Aug. 29 exchange rate of $1:P45.92) and P70,000 ($1,524.39) or for rent anywhere from P600 ($13.07) a month. The more money you have, the bigger the cubicle you could get.

Even at these rates, however, the rows of cubicles in the “dormitories” look more like rows of shanties.

Still, those among the 244 detainees in Dorm 3 who could afford to either buy and rent cubicles are better off compared to those who cannot, because the latter have no choice but to sleep on the floor at night.

“If you try to get out of your cubicle at night to use the comfort room, you are sure to step on heads,” Echanis said. “You’d have nothing to step on but heads.”

Quiapo, where the City Jail is located, is one of Manila’s most flood-prone areas, and the detainees are not spared from the troubles that floods bring.

“We get a lot of flood here when it rains hard,” Echanis said as he showed us his pair of rubber boots. “When it floods, those who have no cubicles have to share space with those who do when sleeping time comes.”

In the mornings, the detainees wake up to the fact that they would have no power supply until noon. “They say that it is being done to save electricity,” Echanis explained.

But that is not all that they have to put up with. When the time for meals comes, they have to bear with food the quality of which is unthinkable.

“You really can’t eat the food here,” Echanis said. “I’m used to eating just about anything, but the food here is something you really can’t eat.”

For Echanis, adding to the difficulties that all these bring is the fact that he has been placed in a jail where riots are known to be frequent. He was already there when one of these riots took place recently. “It is a very stressful situation because you can never know what will happen to you,” he said.

His present prison conditions have affected his health, said Echanis, who has hypertension.

The KMP leader said that even during his incarceration during the Marcos and Aquino regimes, he did not experience anything like what he now has to deal with on a daily basis.

A history of activism

Echanis studied at the Philippine College of Commerce or PCC, now the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), and the University of the East (UE) in the 1960s. It was at the PCC that he got his first exposure to activism. He was later made chairman of the UE chapter of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM or Patriotic Youth).

In the 1970s, at the height of martial law, Echanis took to the countryside where he did peasant organizing work in the Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, and Cordillera Regions.

He was arrested in 1983 and was placed for two years under solitary confinement at Camp Aguinaldo, the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Following his release in 1986 by virtue of then President Corazon Aquino’s general amnesty proclamation, Echanis co-founded the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainee Laban sa Detensyon at Para sa Amnestiya (Selda or Society of Ex-Detainees for Liberation from Detention and for Amnesty), as well as the Partido ng Bayan (PnB or People’s Party).

In 1987 he went back to the countryside and became active again in peasant organizing until his arrest in 1990. Following his arrest, he was kept for a week in a safehouse, where he was tortured. He was eventually transferred to the PNP Custodial Center, where he was detained along with his daughter Amanda, then two years old. He was released in 1992 after the court dismissed the case of illegal possession of firearms in furtherance of rebellion filed against him.

In 1999, during the KMP’s fifth National Congress, he was elected as the group’s deputy secretary-general for external affairs. In 2001 he was elected to the National Council of the First Quarter Storm Movement (FQSM). Since 2002, he has been helping in the GRP-NDFP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines-National Democratic Front of the Philippines) peace negotiations as a member of the NDFP Reciprocal Working Committee for Social and Economic Reforms.

At the time of his third arrest, he was attending a conference on agrarian reform initiated by the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA or Union of Workers in Agriculture).

Deepening social insights

Echanis said his incarceration at the Manila City Jail has only deepened his insights on what is wrong with society and why it has to be changed. Many of his fellow inmates there, he said, are either slum dwellers or farm workers – people too poor to afford legal services. Most of them are in for theft or drug-related offenses. “Through my conversations with them, I have come to know more about the oppression that they suffer from day to day,” he said.

“A lot of them are from the urban poor communities and unable to find decent employment,” he said. “Because of this, they are easily drawn to crimes like theft and drug-related offenses.”

The prison conditions at the Manila City Jail are not conducive to rehabilitation, however, and Echanis said that keeping one’s sanity in such conditions could be a challenge. “Those who are sane could go insane here,” he said.

Still, Echanis has happily not lost his resolve to fight his battles -– be it the fight for his own freedom or the larger political fight.

“My determination to fight, not only for my immediate freedom but for my hasty return to the movement outside to continue my work there, is whole,” he said. “It also helps a lot that there are expressions of support and there are always visits.”

Aside from that, I am also able to follow what is happening outside and this convinces me that we have to work hard toward genuine change in our society,” he added. Bulatlat

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