Little did Ben and Rita know then that they would eventually be among the development workers whom ASCENT would be assisting in the battle for their freedom and human rights.
On October 19, 2017, at around 1:30 pm they were illegally arrested by about 10 members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental. They were forcibly taken, handcuffed, blindfolded, and brought to Camp Alfredo Montelibano in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. They were interrogated by men who refused to identify themselves. Ben said that the one who interrogated him was wearing a black bonnet that covered his face. Ben said that “I only saw his eyes”.
“Kidnapping ang nangyari sa amin,” (What occurred to us was kidnapping.), said Ben recalling the incident. They had then finished eating their lunch and were about to board their car when armed PNP-AFP operatives blocked their way. The latter shouted at them “Don’t move.”
“I just came from the rest room when I was suddenly grabbed and forced to enter a vehicle”, Rita wrote to one her colleagues. “I tried to resist but there were several of them who were fully armed. I couldn’t believe it because we did not do anything wrong,” Rita further explained.
*Josie, another ASCENT consultant, followed Ben towards the car but she was ordered to lie face down. The hired driver was also told not to move from his place.
The ASCENT team including Ben, Rita, Josie, and a driver had just come from La Carlota City and stopped at Tingting’s Restaurant in Kabankalan City to eat their lunch. ASCENT held a series of consultations with members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) to identify appropriate development projects that can be implemented in areas where NFSW members are based.
On October 14 to 16, Ben and Rita first held an environmental scanning of the NFSW project areas. On October 17, Josie joined them to facilitate a workshop on project identification. Two days later, a hired driver fetched them and was supposed to bring the group to Dumaguete City where they will go to their respective destinations. But they never reached Dumaguete as the joint PNP-AFP team forcibly took Ben and Rita with them in Kabankalan City.
The hired driver, *Mang Alan, asked help from the management of the restaurant who immediately responded. About 15 policemen from the Kabankalan police came. Two of them rode with Josie and Mang Alan, and followed the two vehicles which were carrying Ben and Rita. But after sometime, they stopped in the highway as the policemen apparently received information that what happened to Ben and Rita was supposedly a “legitimate operation”.
Josie and Mang Alan pleaded with them to let them go after the captors of their colleagues. The policemen initially refused but eventually relented, and were allowed to follow their colleagues. One of the policemen also gave Mang Alan a piece of paper where he wrote, “Negros Occidental Police Provincial Office, Camp Alfred Montelibano, Bacolod City, Negros Occidental.” He said that Ben and Rita will be brought to that place.
By then, Josie had contacted a staff of the human rights organization, KARAPATAN, who in turn requested Atty. Benjamin Ramos of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) – Negros to assist ASCENT. The latter met Josie at the Himamaylan Public Market. After getting the facts of the case, Atty. Ramos instructed two of his staff members to go with Josie to Bacolod City. He said that he will contact a lawyer in Bacolod City who will help them.
It turned out that the lawyer in Bacolod City, Atty. Cesar Biloria was not allowed to see Ben and Rita at the Camp Alfredo Montelibano. But a friend of his, a journalist, was allowed entry. This journalist was the one who informed Atty. Biloria that he saw Ben behind bars while Rita was handcuffed and was staying in a room.
Atty. Biloria then met with Josie and advised her to rest as they were already assured that Ben and Rita were in Camp Montelibano. It was already late in the night. Still, they cannot stop worrying and hoped that the lawyer can be allowed to talk to Ben and Rita the following day.
Addressing Political Detention
The following day, Atty. Biloria and Atty. Ramos were allowed for only a short period of time to talk to Ben and Rita. Legal documents on their case were still not provided to them as the camp personnel said that these were not in their possession. On October 21, KARAPATAN’s legal counsel, Atty. Maria Sol Taule and Atty. Ramos were allowed to meet Ben and Rita but only for 30 minutes. The lawyers also told the camp authorities that they should be informed should an inquest be undertaken.
Several hours after the lawyers left, Ben and Rita were brought to Kabankalan City for an inquest without the knowledge of their lawyers. They did not sign any of the documents given them during the inquest, citing the fact that their names were not in the documents. Instead a certain Louie Antonio Martinez aka Louie Castro and a certain Aurora Cayon were mentioned in the documents provided to them. Ben and Rita were then flown to Manila on the last commercial flight of Cebu Pacific (around 11 pm) from Bacolod to Manila. They were taken to Camp Crame in Cubao, Quezon City where they remained up to June 8, 2018.
On October 24, then PNP Chief General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa presented them in a press conference as “Louie Antonio Martinez” and “Aurora Cayon”. The former is alleged to be the Logistics Officer of the New People’s Army (NPA) while the latter is accused of being a part of the National Finance Commission of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Both Ben and Rita have denied such allegations.
Ben and Rita stayed with common criminals in Camp Crame. Ben recalled that one of his inmates even committed suicide in front of him. Fortunately he survived but he was not given proper treatment. Ben insisted to the camp staff that his inmate should be brought to a hospital but they refused. They said that there should be an order from the “higher ups”. Ben even wrote a Letter to the Editor and was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) regarding this incident.
Given such experiences, Ben slowly came to the conclusion that prison reforms are necessary. He was also denied newspapers at one point during his stay at Camp Crame. Both he and Rita were not given food ration as the camp authorities said that they were only in the holding area, meaning that their stay there was temporary and they can be transferred anytime soon. Friends and relatives of Ben and Rita pooled their resources together so that they can receive their daily food ration. When they had already adjusted to their situation, they said that their food ration can be given to them every other day instead of daily.
Ben and Rita also started hearing of stories from other inmates on the quality of rice that they receive. They came to know that the rice given to political prisoners were of poor quality.
Ben asserted his right to be able to receive reading materials including newspapers. He was eventually allowed to get the newspapers from his visitors. He also corresponded with other political prisoners to validate that there is poor quality of rice that are given to them. After getting first-hand information on this matter, Ben wrote to Josie and requested her to generate resources so that rice can be partly subsidized from donations and contributions from concerned human rights advocates and other individuals. He also asked his friends and colleagues to provide reading materials not only to them but also to other political prisoners in Metro Manila.
Breaking the Spirit of Ben and Rita
Meanwhile, ASCENT organized a series of discussion groups and forums on the plight of Ben and Rita and other political prisoners. One of these involved the priests of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) who committed to visit Ben and Rita at Camp Crame on a regular basis. But this did not materialize as Ben and Rita were sneaked out of Camp Crame on June 8, 2018 by three Bayugan City policemen. They were told to immediately leave for the airport. Ben and Rita asked the policemen if they can bring their maintenance medicines with them but were refused. They were also disallowed to bring some of their personal belongings such as clothes and books.
They were brought to the Bayugan Police Station without the knowledge of their lawyers. It was only through the human rights worker that their lawyers, relatives and friends came to know that Ben and Rita were surreptitiously taken to Bayugan City, Agusan del Sur.
The stress of again being transferred from one detention center to another without anyone close to them knowing it manifested in Ben’s running a fever and Rita’s feeling unwell all throughout their trip from Manila to Bayugan City. Upon reaching Bayugan Police Station late in the night of June 8, they were informed that there was no budget for their dinner. Even the three policemen with them had no more money for dinner. It was a good thing that Ben and Rita had a modest amount of money with them. They were the ones who shelled out funds for their dinner and that of the policemen.
Still, it dawned on them that they did not know who to turn to in Bayugan City for assistance. They did not know anybody there. They have not been there although cases have been filed against them in that place.
Ben has a murder charge and two cases of attempted murder in Bayugan while Rita is charged with ransom, kidnapping, and intimidation. They are also facing charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives in Kabankalan. A grenade was planted in the bag of Ben while a gun was likewise put among Rita’s things. Rita has also a murder case in Zamboanga del Norte.
Meanwhile, an emergency meeting was called by KARAPATAN on June 8 after lawyers sent to Camp Crame to look after Ben and Rita were informed by camp authorities that the papers for Ben and Rita’s transfer were not with them. Calls were also immediately made to KARAPATAN-CARAGA so that their staff can already go to Bayugan Police Station to check if Ben and Rita were already there. The following day, June 9, the local KARAPATAN staff reported that Ben and Rita were in jail at the Bayugan Police Station.
Josie and a representative of NUPL, Atty. Katherine Panguban, made preparations to go to Bayugan Police Station to provide legal, material, and moral support to the two political prisoners. The earliest time that they can be there was June 11. They proceeded at once to the Bayugan Police Station after they arrived in Butuan City. (There is no direct flight from Manila to Bayugan. There is only a Manila to Butuan flight.)
Ben and Rita were very happy to see familiar faces. They were able to talk to Atty. Panguban and Josie. They were assured that their rights and welfare will be asserted through the help of Sr. Emma Cupin of the Missionary Sisters of Mary (MSM). A Human Rights Network in CARAGA shall also ensure that church people will be mobilized to participate in the campaign to release all political prisoners including Ben and Rita.
Ben and Rita have since then been transferred to the Butuan City Jail where they are staying with common criminals. “The television here is always tuned in to cockfighting and basketball shows,” Ben complained. Sr. Emma said that she and other visitors of Ben suggested to the jail authorities that the inmates should also watch the news on television. This recommendation was eventually followed although with limitations.
Rita continues to do cross stitch in prison in Butuan. She already made at least two sets of cross stitch while in Camp Crame. She also makes bags and wallets from twine material. A sewing machine was donated to the inmates by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) so Rita also uses this to teach the other female inmates how to sew.
Free Ben and Rita Campaign
The campaign calling for the release of Benito Quilloy and Rita Espinoza was launched last May 3 at the Balay Kalinaw in the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD). The affair was attended by Congressman Carlos Zarate of BAYAN Muna Partylist, Sr. Elenita Belardo, National Coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), Atty. Carlos Montemayor of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), Professor Edward Deveza of the Philippine Network of Food Security Programmes (PNFSP), Dr. Maritess Bacuñata of the Advocates for Community Health (ACH), relatives, friends, and colleagues of Ben and Rita.
Professor Deveza said during the launch that Ben was already hired by the Canlubang Sugar Estate to be its laboratory technician and chemist in the 1970s but he quit as he preferred to work with the sugar workers in their struggle for better wages and improved working conditions. Dr. Bacuñata recalled how patient Ben was in teaching the doctors and health professionals of ACH on how to improve their computer literacy.
Sister Patricia Anne “Pat” Fox sent a message during the launching of the Free Ben and Rita campaign on how much she values the hard work and determination of Rita as a volunteer staff of RMP during her term from 2000-2007. “Rita has this positive disposition that inspires us all to continue our work with the rural poor despite the odds such as harassment and military operations,” Sr. Pat said.
This campaign launch was followed by a forum titled “Ipagtanggol: Development Workers Under Attack in the Time of Duterte” which was held on July 16 at the University Hotel in UPD. Speakers in the forum included Representative Carlos Zarate, former Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Sister Pat Fox of RMP, and Cristina Palabay of KARAPATAN among others. Experiences of harassment and vilification by teachers and staff members of two Lumad schools Mindanao Inter-Faith Services Foundation (MISFI) and Center for Lumad Advocacy, Networking and Services (CLANS) were also tackled in the forum.
A re-launching of the Free Ben and Rita campaign was held on September 13 at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB). It also served as a symbolic homecoming for Ben who entered UPLB in 1970 as a Sugar Technology major. He was only a few units away from earning his degree when he decided to quit and work with sugar workers and other poor sectors to fight for their rights and welfare.
The UPLB re-launching had the following as speakers: former Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and current KMP Chairman Emeritus, Rafael Mariano, Atty. Filemon Nolasco of the Movement Against Tyranny – Southern Tagalog (MAT-ST), Sr. Pat Fox of RMP, Atty. Maria Sol Taule of KARAPATAN, and Professor Edward Deveza of the PNFSP. More than 100 students, professionals, farmers, and workers from non-government organizations (NGOs) attended this forum.
A classmate of Ben in UPLB, Dr. Casiano Abrigo Jr. who now heads the UPLB Foundation also spoke during the forum. He recalled that Ben never cheated in school but was instead very helpful to his classmates specially in teaching Chemistry in which he was very good at. He also said that Ben is a rarity nowadays as he is both nationalist and patriotic.
Political Persecution of Development Workers
Ben and Rita have worked for genuine development for most of their lives. Ben, 64 and Rita, 61 were already involved in the movement for social change during the years of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Ben worked with sugarworkers and farmers in Negros Occidental even as a UPLB student. He was a Consultant of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) on socio-economic projects. He is also a development management consultant for strategic planning and project management who worked with the Advocates for Community Health, Tahanan ng Pag-asa (an NGO for the elderly) and ASCENT.
Rita was a volunteer staff of RMP. “She was actively helping the regional RMP organizations in their projects and programs as a lay worker. She was good in networking and organizing people,” Sr. Patricia Fox, RMP’s then National Coordinator said of Rita.
Similar to Ben, Rita was also a volunteer staff of TNP and a Project Staff of ASCENT. Both Ben and Rita have assisted the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) in their development projects.
The people’s organizations (including KMP and NFSW) and NGOs that Ben and Rita worked with are engaged not merely at project implementation but on how genuine development can be achieved. These organizations have years of experience working with the poor and oppressed. They have programs in education and training, advocacy and networking, organizing and capacity building, sustainable agriculture, resource generation, disaster response, community-based health, appropriate technology and others. They have alternative programs such as for a genuine agrarian reform that they are promoting.
In the course of their advocacies, development workers have to go to places where the poorest of the poor are. These are mostly areas where there are no or limited social services. Government security forces interpret such occurrences as the work of sympathizers and members of rebel organizations. And here lies the problem because development workers are being subjected to human rights violations due to baseless accusations. Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), Willem Geertman, Executive Director of Alay Bayan Inc. and Romeo Capalla, former manager and Board Member of Panay Fair Trade Center (PFTC) were killed as they were accused of being involved in activities of the underground left. Many other development workers have been illegally arrested, harassed, villified and threatened.
On November 6 one of the lawyers of Ben and Rita, Atty. Benjamin “Ben” Ramos was killed by two motorcycle riding men in Kabankalan City while taking a break in front of a variety store. He had then just finished writing a pleading for one of the cases that he was handling.
Atty. Ben is the Secretary General of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) in Negros Occidental. He is the 34th lawyer killed under the Duterte administration. He is also a development worker and served as the Executive Director of the non-government organization Paghe-daet sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG) which assisted peasants’ organizations.
The case of Ben and Rita is only one among the cases of HRVs involving development workers. The political persecution not only of development workers but others — activists, environmental workers and human rights defenders only shows how myopic and narrow minded government looks at dissent. Government should have listened to what these individuals and their organizations are saying. It should have studied, analyzed, experienced and addressed formally what they have implemented. The peace talks between the government and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) could have been the venue through which serious development issues raised by these organizations should have been tackled.
Government has instead used force and political repression in addressing contrary views and development strategies. However, the people’s organizations and NGOs including those that Ben and Rita have worked with have continued with their assertion and struggle for their economic, social and cultural rights.
As Ben put it “Our illegal arrest and detention is not only about us. It is about what we have been fighting for which is the people’s rights. They can arrest others like us but they cannot arrest all the people. Many others will follow us”. #
* Real names withheld to protect their identity.