CALBAYOG CITY, Samar—Since his imprisonment in February, once frail and wan poet-songwriter Ericson Acosta has put on 10-12 pounds, a weight gain that has equipped him with strength and endurance for an ongoing hunger strike.
Acosta, 39, and 355 other political prisoners nationwide began the hunger strike on December 3 to call on President Benigno Aquino III to withdraw “baseless charges” and grant them unconditional amnesty. The strike is to end on the eve of December 10, Human Rights Day.
Acosta shares a crowded, dimly lit cell with 12 other inmates charged with common crimes in a subprovincial jail outside downtown Calbayog. He has given up his daily ration of rice and fish to subsist on water, juice and an occasional chocolate energy drink.
He faces what the Free Ericson Acosta Movement describes as “falsified charges of illegal possession of explosives” and is represented by Jun Oliva of the National Union of People’s Lawyers.
“Our laws remain unclear in their definition of what a political prisoner is,” Acosta said in an interview a day after he embarked on the hunger strike.
“Here we have a classic instance of the country’s system of laws falling behind the historical paces made by the people’s experience of repression. Our strike aims to show that it is unnecessary to go through a full-blown trial,” he said.
At the rehabilitation center in Mankilam, Tagum, Davao del Norte province, the hunger strike of 16 political prisoners started earlier—on November 27—and has gained the sympathy of some 500 regular inmates, according to Angie Ipong, secretary general of the human rights organization Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (Selda).
Ipong said 30 political prisoners in Southern Tagalog shaved their heads when they began their hunger strike.
To political prisoners, a hunger strike is considered a desperate act against government inaction. During the Marcos dictatorship, these strikes were political calls for the release of sick or pregnant prisoners, better services in jails for detainees, or the removal of repressive and punitive jail policies.
Cristina Ellazar Palabay, convener of Tanggol Bayi and focal person of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development’s women in politics program, said the ongoing hunger strike was akin to the ones held by political prisoners during martial law.
“Similar issues are being raised: dire conditions in jail, bankrupt judicial processes (for example, the law tends to give premium to the cases of the moneyed and powerful and slackens on delivering justice to the poor), the injustice of the continued detention of political prisoners who are innocent of the criminal offenses of which they are charged,” Palabay said in an interview by e-mail.
She added: “During martial law, charges against political prisoners were political in nature—rebellion or sedition. These days, fabricated criminal charges are heaped upon political prisoners to cover up political persecution and keep them in jail while court hearings proceed at a snail’s pace.”
Such is the case of Acosta and of Maricon Montajes, 22, a film student of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, who is being held at the Batangas City Jail.
Both artists lived and worked closely with farmers to be able to articulate the latter’s plight, and are now imprisoned and charged with illegal possession of explosives and firearms.
This was the same charge filed against the 43 health workers known as the “Morong 43,” whom President Aquino ordered released early in his term.
Palabay on Wednesday said that Montajes and her six fellow inmates had been “warned” by prison authorities that they would be “penalized because of their protest action.”
Acosta was nominated recently for the WikiPinoy of the Year Award, which is issued by the online encyclopedia WikiPilipinas to individuals or groups who empower the public through the use of new media.
Last month he was nominated for the 2011 Imprisoned Artist Prize awarded by the Singapore-based Freedom to Create, for making his art and music heard despite the most pressing of circumstances.
Acosta expressed hope that he could one day join Selda, which works for the unconditional release of political prisoners and humane treatment of those in detention.
For now, mainstream cultural groups are offering him projects that will use his songwriting skills.
Acosta said he considers himself more fortunate than his cell mates in that while they have no visitors, he has enjoyed a third visit from his 9-year-old son Emmanuel.
When Emmanuel was taken to see his father in jail for the first time in May, the boy showed a maturity that surprised the latter: “Alam mo ba, Tatay, na nakulong din si Rizal (Do you know, Father, that [national hero Jose] Rizal was also imprisoned?”
According to Acosta, the boy also understands that in the communities where his father lived and worked, the children scarcely had food and no toys at all.
Commenting on the general indifference to the plight of political prisoners, Palabay said their efforts to raise awareness on human rights “take multifarious forms and have one message: It is important to be aware of and fight for these rights lest these be taken away from us by the powers that be without any resistance.”
“From local communities to the international community, from barangays to the United Nations and the peoples of other countries, we build solidarity through films, art exhibits, poetry and literature, music and political statements and actions, and discussions on the human rights situation in the Philippines,” she said.
Acosta said he was not confident that the hunger strike would lead to the political prisoners’ release by Christmas.
But he said he was hopeful that the interest it could generate might lead lawmakers to finally “codify the sociopolitical phenomenon of political prisoners.”
Asked if the hair now almost reaching his shoulders was also part of his protest, Acosta said long hair was useful when reading letters from home because it covered his tears.