In memory of Rene Saguisag

There are heroes that walk in our midst and my husband Vic Ladlad and I were privileged to have walked with one of them in arduous journeys.

On April 24, former Senator Rene Saguisag passed away at 84. Together with Kapatid, our support group for political prisoners, Vic and I pay the highest homage and respect to Rene who walked the talk as a human rights lawyer, nationalist, statesman and servant of the people.

We thank him with all our hearts for every bit of help that he extended, especially to the political prisoners from the period of martial law until his last breath on earth. As “Cory Jr.,” which is what Rene called himself with characteristic humor when he served as the presidential spokesperson of newly installed Cory Aquino, he was instrumental in the release of all political prisoners in February 1986.

“We were in the barricades one day, and the next, we were in power,” wrote Rene in a column that I kept on file. “We had no transition period. But, a commitment was a commitment. We forgave crimes with a ‘political complexion.’ The detainees were released.”

Vic was one of them. Today, 38 years later, at age 75, Vic is back in jail as a political prisoner for planted firearms and explosives. He wrote this short piece in his cell in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig City in personal tribute:

“I will always remember Rene Saguisag and will forever be grateful to him.

“Atty. Saguisag did not know me personally when I was arrested during martial law on Feb. 21, 1983. But he did not hesitate to join Joker Arroyo and Fely Aquino and other lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in filing a petition for habeas corpus at the Supreme Court on my behalf.

“It had been more than a week after my arrest by the Southern Tagalog Philippine Constabulary, but the authorities flatly refused to even acknowledge that I was in their custody.

“Upon order by the Supreme Court, the PC presented me in an en banc session. It was there that I first met Rene.

“Attorneys Joker Arroyo and Rene Saguisag argued my case in that Supreme Court hearing. Consequently, my mother and lawyers were able to see me in Camp Nakar, Lucena City.

“I was among the many victims of human rights violations who benefited from Rene’s human rights lawyering. Mabuhay ka Atty. Rene Saguisag. Ang iyong huwarang tapang, katapatan at dedikasyon ay ang pinakadakilang pamana mo (Long live Atty. Rene Saguisag. Your exemplary courage, loyalty and dedication are your greatest legacy).”

Indeed, there is no counting Rene’s good deeds, particularly for the political prisoners. One indelible memory of him was when he would join us during court hearings on the Case of the Traveling Skeletons in RTC Branch 32 at the Manila City Hall.

That case about corpses that sprung out of one graveyard in 2000 and surfaced in another graveyard in another town in Leyte six years later is straight out of the martial law dictionary of legal hocus-pocus.

Vic was a political prisoner in Camp Nakar, Lucena throughout the time period of that case yet he was dragged in as a respondent to those bogus charges.

“This is martial law all over again,” Rene remarked, like what his contemporary Joker Arroyo said in open court. Joker, Vic’s chief counsel during his political imprisonment during martial law, was Vic’s principal witness for the Leyte case.

What particularly drew Rene’s attention were Wilma and Benito Tiamzon during those court hearings he attended in 2016. Both had been arrested and brought to court. Rene was delighted to find out that, like him, the Tiamzons were products of Rizal High School.

I noted that Wilma and Benny were at the top three of their graduating batch, which I read in a Bulatlat article. Benito finished salutatorian and Wilma was the first honorable mention. Rene, a scholar himself, was most impressed. “Ang galing! Alam mo ba, pinakamalaking high school ’yan sa buong mundo,” he said. (Very good! Did you know, it’s the largest high school in the world.)

Indeed, no mean feat in what the Guinness Book of World Records lists as the “largest secondary school in the world” until 1993 (current population: over 14,000). “Dito rin nag graduate si Uncle Jovy (Uncle Jovy also graduated from there),” Rene proudly told us, referring to former Senator and another fierce martial law opponent whom he considered his “idol,” Jovito Salonga.

Rene had his differences with the Left, but he respected and admired them for their bravery and idealism, which were not unlike his. “The Left must have a place under the sun,” he told Vic.

It must have pained Rene to learn that in August 2022, Wilma and Benito were arrested by military forces and died somewhere in Leyte. Their captors tried to make it appear that they were killed in a boat explosion. But they were reportedly tortured first and their lifeless bodies dumped in a motorboat which was then detonated.

Let me end this eulogy to greatness with Rene’s own words, penned for the Kapatid re-founding assembly on June 15, 2019 to wish it “every success.” His statement is a mirror of his own “purity of commitment” and the passions of a life well lived, which include his beloved wife Dulce:

“It’s tough to lose a loved one, as I did in 2007, but at least there was some kind of closure. Not so in the case of desaparecidos, where one hopes that the next shadow in, or knock on, the door is that of the missing beloved.

“In the case of political detainees, I can only admire the purity of their commitment, and the reminder that they continue to be ready to give their all to the Motherland, the physical and psychological torment notwithstanding. They continue to love Her with that kind of passion that whips the blood, and hang the costs and consequences.

“Keep going.

“As Ted Kennedy said in 1980, ‘For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream, shall never die.’”

Fides Lim is a writer, editor and spokesperson of Kapatid–Families of Political Prisoners, and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms.