Philippines's oldest political prisoner walks free at 85

Gerardo dela Peña (right) and son Melchor with the former holding his release order from prison. Photo from Kapatid, used with permission.

This article by Nuel M. Bacarra was originally published on Kodao, an independent news site in the Philippines. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

The Philippines's oldest political prisoner, Gerardo Dela Peña, 85, walked free on June 30, 2024 from the National Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City after more than a decade of imprisonment.

Dela Peña was the former head of the Camarines Norte chapter of the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensiyon at Aresto (SELDA), an advocacy group that promotes justice for former political prisoners. Military personnel arrested him on March 21, 2013, and convicted him at age 75 on spurious murder charges.

Human rights network Karapatan highlighted Dela Peña’s activism during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and early 1980s:

Coming from a family of land tillers, Dela Peña was a peasant organizer in Bicol. In his younger years as an activist, he was detained and tortured by the police and military under the Marcos dictatorship in 1982. After his release, he chaired the SELDA chapter in Camarines Norte. He persisted in his activism, working with various other people’s organizations in the region, despite threats to his life and liberty.

Political prisoner support group Kapatid insisted that Dela Peña’s conviction for allegedly killing his own nephew was wrong, as the armed communist group New People’s Army had previously admitted to the act.

Thin and frail, he carried a small bag containing his meager possessions and the Certificate of Discharge from Prison issued by the Bureau of Corrections on June 29.

Accompanied by Kapatid spokesperson Fides Lim, Dela Peña’s son Melchor fetched his father from the NBP after traveling 12 hours from their home province.

In a statement, Lim said:

Tatay [Father] Gerry’s journey to freedom was very difficult because of systematic challenges and bureaucratic delays. Being more than 80 years old and sickly, Tatay Gerry is over qualified to avail of humanitarian basis for release.

Lim added it is concerning that the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP) did not immediately implement its own policy Resolutions, which offer executive clemency for prisoners who have reached 70 years old and served ten years of their sentence.

“The fact is, Tatay Gerry had already over-served his commutated sentence, serving exactly 12 years and two months as of June 12, aside from the good conduct time allowance he accrued. Every additional minute behind bars is a gross injustice for an innocent man,” Lim said.

The Commission on Human Rights on May 24 also reminded the government earlier of its duty to implement the Mandela Rules — international regulations on how to treat prisoners — which grant clemency to sick and elderly prisoners.

Already hard of hearing, Tatay Gerry also suffers from impaired vision, diabetes, and hypertension. While in jail, he also suffered a stroke.

Defective judicial system

The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) said Dela Peña’s arrest, conviction, and decade-long imprisonment were the result of the country’s defective judicial system. Ephraim Cortez, NUPL president, asserted that reasonable doubt was established during the trial:

If there was any proof, I don’t think it was sufficient because somebody else did it and somebody else admitted doing it. It should have mattered to look for that angle. The fact that somebody else claimed having done it, it is already a reasonable doubt.

In a celebratory gathering for Dela Peña on July 1, he said he was very excited to go home to his family and to again work their farm in Camarines Norte.

Ay, masaya syempre. Hindi na kayang sabihin ang kasayahan ko. Ang kasayahan ko ay pantay Langit na.

Happy of course. No words can describe my happiness. My happiness is sky high.

He added he looks forward to seeing his wife Pilar, to give her a kiss.

Dela Peña said he is grateful to Lim and Kapatid, his lawyers, SELDA and Karapatan, and other organizations who worked for his release.

He also said he hopes for the freedom of all other political prisoners, especially the sick and elderly.

Dela Peña’s son Melchor, for his part, said the following:

Pakiramdam naming, may nadagdag sa buhay namin. Masaya kami dahil ‘yung pamilya namin ay nag-aabang doon. Hindi kami nag-i-expect na makalabas pa siya. Sabi naming, wala na. Buti na lang may tumulong sa amin.

We feel our lives have been enhanced. We are happy as our family waits for us arrival. We didn’t expect him to be free. We gave up. Luckily, there were those who helped us.

The government argued that Dela Peña should not be considered a political prisoner. “His conviction was not for a political crime which is aimed against the political order, as well as such common crimes as may be committed to achieve a political purpose,” the Department of Justice said.

But Kapatid offered a swift rejoinder to this assertion:

…it is apparent that their denial is intended to obscure the reality of political prisoners and to cover up the unjust practices of a security apparatus that fabricates nonbailable cases to stigmatize activists and political targets as common criminals.

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