Almost four decades after he was arrested and tortured and his sister disappeared into a maze of Philippine police cells and military houses, playwright Bonifacio Ilagan is finally seeing his suffering officially recognized.
A writer for an underground communist newspaper, Ilagan and thousands like him were rounded up by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ security forces after he placed the Philippines under martial law in 1972. Detentions, beatings, harassment and killings of the regime’s opponents continued until Marcos was toppled in 1986.
Even though democracy was restored, it would take another 27 years for the Philippine Congress to vote on a bill awarding compensation and recognition to martial law victims. The ratification is expected today or tomorrow, said Representative Neri Colmenares, one of the bill’s authors.
“More than the monetary compensation, the bill represents the only formal, written document that martial law violated the human rights of Filipinos and that there were courageous people who fought the dictatorship,” said a statement from SELDA, an organization of former political prisoners that campaigned for the passage of the bill.
Ilagan’s story is more of a rule than exception among leftist activists of his generation.
“The torture started in the house. We were beaten up, punched and kicked,” he said, recalling a police raid on his residence in April 1974 and the beginning of his two-year detention ordeal.
“The one episode in my torture that I cannot forget was when they ordered me to remove my pants and underwear and they inserted a piece of stick into my penis. ‘Oh my God,’ I said, this is one torture I could not bear,”’ the 61-year-old said in an interview.
He said that interrogators wanted him to decode documents and identify people in pictures that were seized from suspected communist activists.
“Compared to others, mine was not the worst torture,” he said. “The others were electrocuted and injected with truth serum ... but the threats continued.”
Ilagan’s sister, Rizalina, disappeared in 1976 along with nine other activists, many of them students involved in anti-Marcos publications, he said. One of the women arrested by the same government unit that he suspected was involved in his sister’s abduction had escaped to recount her rape and torture. Ilagan said he has no doubt that his sister went through the same abuses.
His parents died still hoping his sister would turn up alive, but the family has found no closure, Ilagan said.
Lawmakers in two chambers of the Congress last week agreed on a text of the compensation bill, which is set to be officially ratified this week and signed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. The president is the son of an assassinated anti-Marcos activist and a mother who led the 1986 “people power” revolt that ousted Marcos and sent him into US exile.
Under the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013, the 9,539 victims will be awarded compensation using US$246 million that the Philippine government recovered from Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth. However, all claims will still have to evaluated by an independent commission and the amount each will receive will depend of the abuse suffered.