‘Sentenced’ without conviction

freed political prisoner
Elmer Torres (Photo by Mary Angelique Tacata/Bulatlat)

A victim of the country’s slow judicial process, Elmer Torres spent a decade of his life in prison and yet, he was never convicted. But now, he is free.

By DANNAH DENISE AGUSTIN
Bulatlat

MANILA — “How does it feel to be free? There are times I could not sleep. I would wake up at 10 or 11 p.m. and could not return to sleep ‘til morning. It is unbelievable.”

Political prisoner Elmer Torres was released last June after serving the maximum sentence of 10 year-imprisonment for trumped-up robbery charges. He remains in disbelief about his freedom. No trace of regret would be found in his expression when he jokingly shared that the case filed against him in 2007 will probably be junked.

A victim of the country’s slow judicial process, Torres spent a decade of his life in prison as he was accused of being one of the revolutionaries who raided a police station in North Cotabato. In court, a fabricated video evidence was presented; a former neighbor and friend even testified against him, naming him among the alleged members of the unit Front 51 of the New People’s Army (NPA). The complainants and witnesses against him have stopped attending court hearings in the past 10 years. Torres, meanwhile, practically served a full sentence even without conviction.

Born in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, Torres comes from a family of eight, with two brothers and three sisters. His parents work as farmers in a land owned by a local rich family. Growing up in a barrio tagged by the government as an area of revolutionaries, he was exposed to the injustices and issues faced by poor farmers.

“We farmed the land and when harvest season came, part of what we harvested goes to the landowners. Usually, what was left to us was not enough for our needs while they (landowners) enjoyed what we have worked hard for,” Torres shared in Filipino.

At a young age of 17, he decided that these injustices need to be addressed. Influenced by his parents who were activists, he joined progressive groups in their town. At the age of 18, he became an organizer, sharing his knowledge and principles with other villagers.

“We could not ignore the revolutionaries; we live in the same barrio and we see and experience the issues that they are fighting for. Even the parents, who live in the same place, tend to sympathize,” he answered in Filipino when asked what made him decide to join the revolutionary movement.

He said the movement drew inspiration from Andres Bonifacio, father of the Philippine Revolution and founder of the Katipunan, which implemented revolutionary land reform in defiance of the Spanish colonizers.

Torres also recalled stories of military abuses and cited that some of his relatives became victims of Martial Law under the Marcos Dictatorship. “The stories of military abuses that continue up to now, those greatly contributed to my decision to join the group,” Torres said.

He left home and worked full time with the revolutionaries, going to different places and educating farmers and other sectors. But after four years of hardships and moving around, Torres decided that he wanted to leave and return to the quiet life in the village.

“I was the only one in the family who decided to work full time with the group. I left home without them knowing where I would be going, when would I be returning,” Torres said with slightly bitter smile.

He said the hardship and loneliness had taken its toll on him.

���Then during Palparan’s reign, the military was very hot on our tails. They were so eager to crush the NPAs, or even alleged revolutionaries, and we were on the run every day. We went from one town to another …hiding in the mountains. We did not even have enough time to rest,” Torres recallled.

In 2007, he asked for a short break from the group and decided to return home. He contacted the mayor of his hometown and asked for protection so that he would not be arrested. Little did he know that in 2005, he was included in a robbery case and had been ordered arrested.

“I wanted to live a normal life. I wanted to live peacefully in our hometown…I was not aware that there was a warrant of arrest for me. So I was confident in meeting him to ask for protection,” he said.

The day after meeting with the mayor, he was waiting in the police station near the mayor’s office when soldiers arrested him citing that he was on the list of wanted criminals for robbing a North Cotabato police station in in 2005. He denied these charges saying that he was never involved in any case of robbery.

He was detained for three days before Torres was given a lawyer from the Public Attorney’s Office. He was informed that a ‘witness’ had given a statement that he was a member of the NPA’s unit front 51 and a video evidence was produced showing him and some of the alleged members in the same place where the robbery took place.

But Torres denied this. He said the video was fake, and that the images were edited and taken from two videos taken on different dates. He said that the video of the raid on the police station happened months after the video which showed his group conducting trainings in the same town. He also denied that the people in the videos were from their unit.

Police complainants pointed out that the ‘star witness’ was a member of the group that attacked the station, but had turned against his former comrades to save himself from charges.

“The police who were the complainants were very kind to me. They even said that they were not interested in my case because they did not know me personally. The police station raided was in North Cotabato and I’m from Sta Cruz. They said that the star witness immediately dropped names of his alleged co-members when he learned that he will be jailed,” he told Bulatlat.

After he was charged, Torres was detained at the Amas provincial jail in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato. He said he did not lose hope that he would be acquitted due to weak evidences and statements of the police complainants. But he was surprised when Jolito Lantanga, his former neighbor in Sta Cruz, testified in the court and identified him as among the perpetrators.

“I told him, I hope he would not get karma for what he was doing. The police knows the truth, while he was just saving his own skin,” Torres said.

Court hearings were frequently delayed due to conflicts rising in their area and frequent jailbreaks.

After four years in Amas and tagged as high risk inmate, Torres was transferred to the Special Intensive Care Area of Metro Manila District Jail (SICA MMDJ) in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig City. Due to the change of location of court hearings, complainants and the witness were unable to attend hearings which even more delayed progress in his case.

With no friends and family to visit him in SICA, Torres chose to turn his despair into hope. He became a regular member of Bible study meetings and avoided being involved in riots and jailbreaks. He earned the warden and some jail officers’ trust due to his kind and obedient behavior.

“I was away from my family, they cannot visit me due to financial constraints. I do not have friends. There were some inmates who committed suicide due to hopelessness but I did not want to be defeated by despair. I did not lose hope, even after four years that there were no clarity with what will happen with my case. I believed and applied what I learn from the Bible,” Torres smiled while sharing his experiences inside the prison.

Torres also developed friendship with some inmates, and took everything in a positive way.

“Now, I am in a two year romantic relationship with my friend’s sister. We met because she frequently visits her brother who is my close friend. I always tagged along when she visits, that’s when we developed our feelings,” he said smiling.

Torres said that he is no longer worried about whatever would be the court’s decision. He said that whether convicted or not, he had served his sentence and he only wants to finish the hearings and close the case.

“There’s a high possibility that the case will be dismissed, said my lawyer. The complainants already sent their letters that they cannot attend the hearings after many court summons, even the witness did not comply. But it’s okay. I do not feel bad. Besides, I am already free,” Torres laughed.

“I am also very thankful to Karapatan, that they helped and assisted me in my case and received me after being released. There was that one time that they visited Amas and even though I was not in the list of their inmates to assist, they accepted me after I personally approached them and asked for assistance,” he said.

Today, Torres is staying in Quezon City while waiting for his court hearings to resume. With plans of returning home and living the peaceful, normal life he once wished, Torres is positive that in a few months he would be acquitted and be totally free. ()

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