PEN Philippines to submit longest list of writers-in-prison to London

(From left) Multi-awarded poet, playwright and scriptwriter Bonifacio Ilagan, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, and PEN Philippines president Jun Cruz Reyes.

(From left) Multi-awarded poet, playwright and scriptwriter Bonifacio Ilagan, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, and PEN Philippines president Jun Cruz Reyes.

THE PHILIPPINES is set to submit its longest ever list of “writers in prison” to this year’s International PEN convention in December for inclusion in a high-profile and long-running campaign to protect and free persecuted writers and artists.

PEN Philippines listed 12 poets, fictionists, stage actors, visual artists and photographers as among the 357 political prisoners in the country who may be included in the 2015 International PEN case list of persecuted writers and artists.

In previous years, the local PEN center used to submit few, even singular, names to the international gathering of the of the world’s oldest human rights organization as well as oldest literary association.

In a forum held at the University of the Philippines last October 9, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, PEN Philippines president Jun Cruz Reyes and multi-awarded playwright and scriptwriter Bonifacio Ilagan led the presentation of the 12 writers and artists.

The list includes Alan Jazmines (poetry and visual arts), Sharon Cabusao (poetry, fiction and journalism), Ruben Rupido (poetry, music, visual arts and fiction), Juan Pablo Verzosa (photography and visual arts), Eduardo Sarmiento (visual arts and children’s stories), Adelberto Silva (poetry and theater), Maricon Montajes (photography and film), Randy Vegas (poetry), Voltaire Guray (theater, visual arts and music), Osias Abad (visual arts), Tirso Alcantara (poetry, visual arts and music), and Wilma Austria-Tiamzon (poetry and music).

All 12 qualify for the list of persecuted writers and artists as they have been published, exhibited or have participated in stage plays and film productions, PEN Philippines said.

“There is something inherently wrong in society if we imprison our writers and artists who serve as our people’s conscience,” PEN Philippines president Cruz Reyes said.

“If our writers and artists are in prison, it only signifies that we do not have genuine freedom,” he added.

Austria-Tiamzon, Jazmines, Sarmiento, Alcantara and Silva are considered by the Aquino government as “high profile inmates” owing to the positions they allegedly occupy in the Communist Party of the Philippines hierarchy. All are National Democratic Front of the Philippines consultants in the peace process with the Manila government and are holders of Joint Immunity and Safety Guarantee passes.

All 12 are charged with common crimes such as murder, homicide, theft and arson. Many also complain of being illegally arrested, abducted and tortured by both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.

Playwright and scriptwriter Ilagan said that those in the list have been writers and artists even before they were arrested and imprisoned.

“If they are guilty of anything, it is for the so-called crime of writing and producing art that seek genuine freedom, democracy and prosperity for our people,” Ilagan said.

“Tell me what our writers write about and I’ll tell you what honor our country possesses,” Cruz Reyes added.

PEN was founded in 1921 by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott in London as an organization of poets, essayists and novelists advocating for free expression. Its pioneering members included Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth Craig, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. It has since expanded its membership to include playwrights, editors, journalists and historians.

In 1961, International PEN has initiated its bedrock advocacy of winning the freedom of writers in prison and supporting the writers’ struggles to publish and express themselves freely.

In recent years, International PEN campaigned for the release of Filipino poets, musicians and former political prisoners Axel Pinpin and Ericson Acosta. Both have been since been released due to insufficiency of evidence of criminal charges against them.

In a statement issued from the cells of Bagong Diwa Intensive Care Area of Camp in Bicutan, Taguig City, the named artists thanked PEN Philippines and the Free the Artist Campaign for looking into their plight.

“They have imprisoned our bodies and they are trying hard to bind our hands and gag our voices to prevent us from expressing the truth.  But we persevere to create art and share these with people,” their statement said.

The event was co-organized by the UP Sentro ng Wikang Filipino and the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainee Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto. # (Text and photo by Raymund B. Villanueva)