Christmas Outside Prison Walls

One may see “limited joy” this Christmas in the faces of three men who walked out of prison on December 11, a day after International Human Rights Day. They may be considered “free men” now but for them, the struggle to be free continues as they join a society that they say remains imprisoned by a rotten system.


For 17 years, Modesto Tobias, Julito Tobias and Ramil Orgasan were among the political prisoners at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) who looked forward to the “Paskuhan sa NBP” (Christmas at the NBP) organized every year by human rights workers and advocates under SELDA (Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Para sa Amnestiya or Association of Ex-Detainees Against Detention and For Amnesty).

This year, however, the three men laughed, sang songs and took part in the Christmas celebration along with the inmates of Brigada 11 not in the tangerine shirt worn by inmates but in regular clothes. They were already free men.

Christmas came early for Modesto, 64, Julito, 36 and Ramil, 40, as they walked out of the NBP on Dec. 11, after their life sentence was commuted. NBP is Muntinlupa, just south of Manila.

In spite of their regained freedom and the holiday festive mood, the three were not so exuberant. “Ang masasabi ko lang sa mga kasamang naiwan, manatiling buo ang loob, ihanda ang sarili sa paglabas dito (All I can say to those who still remain here, stay firm, and prepare for the day when you leave this place),” said Ramil as he spoke to his former fellow inmates at the Christmas program.

“Lumabas lang kami ng kulungan, patungo sa mas malaking kulungan (We left the prison, only to enter a bigger prison),” said Julito for his part.

Victims of injustice

Modesto, his brother Bartolome, Ramil and Julito were found guilty of robbery in band with homicide and were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1990. It was a crime they did not commit, they said.

“Walang warrant of arrest, hindi patas ang paghatol sa kaso, at wala naman silang matibay na ebidensiya
(There was no warrant of arrest, the judgment was not fair, and they did not have any strong evidence),” Julito said in an interview. He said they were targeted because they were members of the local peasant group in their respective communities. Modesto and Bartolome belonged to a peasant community organization, while Julito and Ramil were with the peasant youth group in their villages in Samar.

Bartolome was first to be arrested by the 34th Infantry Battalion (IB) of the Philippine Army on April 18, 1989, in his home in San Rafael village, Hinabangan town, Samar. Modesto was arrested in his home at 3 am the day after (April 19), also by the 34th IB. On the other hand, 14th Infantry Battalion arrested Ramil on April 21 in the same village. The 34th IB soldiers arrested Julito at a military checkpoint in Cansulabao village, Hinabangan.

Julio, then 19, was charged with three cases of robbery. There was no complainant and all three cases were immediately dismissed. But the military filed a fourth case, implicating Julito in robbery in band with homicide filed against the Tobias brothers and Ramil.

The Tobias brothers’ villagemate, Luisito Estaron, was presented by the military as a witness against the four. They were sentenced in 1990 after more than a year in detention at the Catbalogan Provincial Jail. They were then transferred to the NBP in Muntinlupa City where they would later be assigned to Brigada 11 (the political prisoners section) in 1995.

“Sabi nila, masuwerte kayo, makakalabas na kayo. Paano mo masasabing suwerte iyan, eh wala naman kaming kasalanan, tapos tinapos namin yung definite sentence (They tell us, you’re lucky to be discharged. But how can they say we are lucky when we did not commit any crime, yet we had to finish the definite sentence),” said Julito.

In 2001, the Tobias brothers, Julito and Ramil, had been on the list of political prisoners recommended for release in an agreement between the peace negotiating panels of the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The release of the political detainees was among the confidence-building measures between the two panels. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed their release papers.

Modesto recalled that in 2002, they were called before then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez who read out the list of political prisoners to be released. He said their hopes were high that they would be among those to go home.

“Pero nang magtawag na ng pangalan…ay, wala. Hindi pala kami kasama (But when they called out the names of those to be released, it turned out we were not included),” he recalled, sadly.

Their names were again included in the 2004 Oslo Agreement signed by the government and NDFP peace panels. But the government still did not release them at that time.

The Dec. 11 release order also applied to Bartolome, who had been detained separately at the Iwahig Penal Colony in Palawan.

Losses and gains

After being imprisoned for so long and so far from their families, Modesto and Julito have lost contact with most of their relatives. Only Ramil, who was a diligent letter-writer, managed to keep in touch with his siblings. He even courted a penpal, Juliet, whom he eventually married. Ramil was fetched by his siblings immediately after his release.

Modesto meanwhile said he is yet to get in touch with his children, the eldest of whom was only eight years old when he was arrested and imprisoned. Only three of his seven children are still alive. Two died of illnesses before his imprisonment, and the other two – aged one and seven – died in 1991. They now have their own families, he said. Even his wife, 17 years younger than him, left him in 1993 for another man.

His youngest, Claire, tried to visit him in 2002, but she was refused entry by the jail guards, because they said she was a minor. “Nang magpalit ng direktor, naghigpit sila. Kahit naroon na sa computer ang pangalan niya, hindi siya pinapasok.” Under a new prison director, they became stricter. Even if her name appeared in the computer, they did not let her visit me.)

Modesto said he is uncertain if his now-grown children would take him in after 17 years. “Baka sumbatan nila ako dahil naiwan ko sila noong maliliit pa sila. Kaya itatanong ko muna sa kanila kung tatanggapin pa nila ako ngayong matanda na ako (They might blame me for having left them when they were still little. So I would have to ask them first if they would take me in now that I am already old),” said Modesto.

Julito is the youngest of six children. His mother died in June this year while his father passed away in 2001. He said that he learned about their deaths from other people.

“Yung nasira sa akin, yung pagtingin sa lugar namin, iba na ang pagkakakilala, ex-convict na. Nagkaroon ka ng batik, dahil sa kagagawan ng ibang tao, dahil sa paglabag sa karapatan mo. Napakahirap nang ibalik noon (They had ruined my reputation in my community, I would now be seen as an ex-convict. I have been stained, because of what other people have done, because of their violation of my rights. That’s something ery hard to bring back),” Julito said.

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