January 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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A Letter from Prison

Temogen “Cocoy” Tulawie

Dear Friends, Comrades, Supporters and Fellow Human Rights Defenders,

Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh!

Exactly one year ago, Jan. 14, 2012, just at the stroke of midnight, I was with my two sons, Eeman, 17 years old, and Ameer, 13 years old, in a rented house in Catalunan Grande in Davao City when combined elements of the Regional Special Action Force and Regional Intelligence Unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP) led by Police Supt. Fernando Ortega forcibly broke in the door in order to arrest me. As the assaulting team was still alighting from their vehicles, I already noticed them from inside the house, and I immediately turned on the lights. The men were in full combat attire with long high-powered firearms, bullet-proof vests and laser night vision goggles as they were under strict orientation that I am a highly dangerous target who possessed bombs and weapons.

There was still every chance for me to escape, but I did not consider that option as it would just cause unnecessary commotion in the already quiet and sleeping neighborhood. I peacefully submitted myself to the arresting team, which then brought me to the Davao Medical Center for a physical check-up, which is standard operating procedure.

Due to direct threats against my life, I had been running the life of a fugitive since I left my hometown in Sulu in 2009. Since then, I had been sensibly imagining the day of my arrest and had also psychologically prepared my two sons, Eeman and Ameer, on what they should do when that event will actually happen. Both of them had clear instructions about whom to call, what to do, how to conduct themselves when I will be arrested. We had been talking about this fateful event for several times; but even with the amount of preparation, nothing in my imagination actually prepared me for that day. The first thing that crossed my mind was what if they summarily execute me. The Philippine State is notorious in its record for summary execution and political killings, and Davao in particular is also infamous for the Davao Death Squad, and therefore, the idea that I may never even reach the nearest police station scared me like hell. I tried so hard to maintain presence of mind and engaged the arresting team members in a conversation. I asked them to bring me to the nearest police station so they can duly record the conduct of my arrest in the police blotter. I recalled this standard operating procedure being taught in our past human rights seminars, and I had never realized until this time that such a procedure could spell life and death for a person in custody.

I was fortunate enough that the arresting team led by Col. Ortega faithfully observed the procedures in conducting my arrest and dutifully brought me to the Talomo Police Station. After that, I was brought to the Davao Medical Center for a physical examination. There I pleaded with Col. Ortega to return back to my house in order to check on the situation of my two minor children and to give them access to my whereabouts. Without hesitation, the good officer went back and was able to meet my two lawyers who were already in the house frantically calling all police stations and military camps for my whereabouts.

Prayers throughout the Night

As I left my children alone in the house that night, I prayed very hard and entrusted everything to Allah’s mantle of protection. I kept praying “Hasbunallahu Wa Ni’mal Wakeel”: I trust no one besides you Ya Allah. I recited this over and over again in the course of such a perilous journey where anything could just happen. There were two critical roads which I greatly feared. Going out of the subdivision, we turned left towards downtown. At that juncture, I thought, if we turn left towards Tacunan, then something will be very, very wrong as I could easily be executed there. I prayed so hard and invoked Allah’s mercy. It was such a relief that the vehicle turned right, and we went towards the national highway. At that point, again, if they turned left towards the diversion, it will be another dangerous turn. I insisted that we go straight ahead because I knew that the Talomo Police Station is towards that direction. In fairness to the arresting team, they were, indeed, heading towards the nearest police station.

Private Plane Waiting

While at Camp Catitipan, I noticed that the arresting team was in a hurry, and I asked why. One of them informed me that after conducting all the standard operating procedures, e.g., medical check-up, picture-taking, documents’ turnover, etc., I will already be turned over to the Military Intelligence Group, or MIG, which came all the way from Zamboanga City. The MIG reportedly had arranged for a private plane to take me to Jolo, Sulu. The assigned officer of the PNP asked the MIG why they are so interested in “Cocoy” Tulawie that they are even willing to charter a private plane to transport him to Sulu.

At that point, I realized that the governor of Sulu is obstinate in delivering a very resounding statement: that it is simply foolish of me to fight against a highly powerful and influential politician who will never hesitate to spend millions in order to silence any dissent and take full control over his own fiefdom. The chartered private plane symbolizes power, machismo and an ostentatious display of wealth, which is simply a criminal act given the wallowing poverty and suffering of the people in Sulu.

Despite a Supreme Court order transferring the venue of the case from Jolo to Davao City, the MIG operatives from Zamboanga City simply wanted to deliver me to their patron so they could then collect the handsome reward. Since no amount of reasoning could convince the arresting team to wait until Monday when the courts are already open, my legal team had to call key cabinet members over the weekend just to delay my transfer to Jolo. It is noteworthy to mention here that the late-Secretary Jessie Robredo readily helped us by instructing the PNP superintendent in Region XI to suspend the transfer to Sulu to give my legal team a reasonable amount of time to confer with the Supreme Court. The chairperson of the Commission of Human Rights (CHR) also burned the mobile phone lines to reach out to the Supreme Court even on a weekend.

One Year After

It has been a year since that fateful arrest on Jan. 14, 2012. A lot of things have happened since then which can perhaps be the subject in forthcoming letters from prison. What is clear though is the fact that, despite the sustained campaigns and legal strategies, money and political influence remain to be my foremost obstacles to freedom. It is sad to note that, in spite of the rightness of my cause, the public sympathy, the earnest efforts of human rights groups and the CHR, the international support and a solid legal defense, my accuser can still afford to prolong my incarceration by the simple excuse of delay and by paying off each and every legal remedy via known tricks of well-oiled law firms.

From the confines of my prison though, I have learned to respect time. Never have I fully understood the virtue of sabar (patience) until I have lived the life of a prisoner. I have no choice but to follow routines, like head count, search of contraband, etc. It is also part of the routine that I get to wear a yellow T-shirt all the time, which, for me, could subconsciously rob me of my own identity. I realize I need to struggle to maintain my health, psychological well-being and the political will to sustain my fight, not only for myself and my family, but also for my people and other human rights defenders who are in far worse conditions than the one that I am currently experiencing.

I have also learned to resign everything to God’s plan and mercy. Listening to the plight of hundreds of inmates that I have encountered here, I have realized that, despite all the odds I am facing, I am even more fortunate than many of them so that keeps me humble, patient and grateful with each day’s worth of blessing.

In my long years as a human rights activist, it is only now that I have fully appreciated the importance of our shared advocacy and the global solidarity that connects our struggle. I feel overwhelmed by the love and support of leaders and organizations from Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland, the United States, European Union and all over the world, most of them I have never even met before.

Just last week, during one of the weekend visits of my family, my son Ameer cried when he learned that I will have to be transferred again from Davao City to Manila after the Supreme Court approved Gov. Sakur Tan’s petition for the transfer of venue. He asked me why I seem to be helpless over my own situation now when all their growing years they looked upon their own father as a fearless defender of the rights of others. In his desperation, Ameer asked me why I could not defend my own self. Ameer’s question gave me a pang in the heart and almost crushed my spirit as a father. If I had not been tempered by the day to day survival measures of prison life, I could have just broke down and cried. Yet I accepted his question for what it is worth. I know I have not given him a satisfactory response. I may not have the answer now, but I know deep in my heart that Allah will answer my prayers in His own time.

I wish to end this letter with a thanksgiving and a deep sense of gratitude for all your support, hard work, generous assistance, prayers and well wishes in the last 12 months when I have been robbed of my freedom. Thank you for working so hard for me and my family. Let us continue working together to defend all human rights defenders in the Philippines and all over the world. I have full faith that, Insha Allah, I will be able to return back to Sulu as a free man in order to continue my important mission as a human rights defender of my people.