Many are in shock and in mourning over the sudden death of Utrecht-based Fidel Agcaoili, chief negotiator of communist rebels in peace negotiations with the government.

Who is this man who, despite the distance and the unremitting slander against the movement he represents, continued to command such strong feelings of admiration?

Photo from Sinag Haraya

Fidel Agcaoili, 75, was perhaps best known as the longest-held political prisoner of the Marcos dictatorship. Arrested and detained in 1974 he was released only in 1985.

A decision of the Supreme Court gives us a look into what he had to endure: “Records reveal that Agcaoili was arrested on May 12, 1974 at Balicon Subdivision, Calasiao, Pangasinan, by elements of 5th Constabulary Security Unit (CSU) by virtue of ASSO No. 3225.”

A military tribunal, not a civilian court, tried Agcaoili.  Although he had no choice, he challenged the charges, and he endured the long incarceration, to the point that he was serving way beyond the punishment meted against him by the military tribunal. 

“The main resolution faithfully depicts the ordeal and travails of citizens under the deposed regime, whereby notwithstanding the lifting of martial law under Proclamation No. 2045 dated January 17, 1981, any person could be ordered detained indefinitely without charges with the issuance by the then president of a Presidential Commitment Order (PCO) or its successor, the Preventive Detention Action (PDA), and yet have no recourse to the courts with the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus for alleged offenses against national security, which effectively stifled the basic constitutional rights and freedoms of our people,” said the court.

That was just a portion of what Agcaoili went through for his political commitment to challenge the Marcos dictatorship. 

In a paper published in 1974 by the United States Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, Ninotchka Rosca wrote about how the military and police arrested, detained, and tortured activists and critics of the dictatorship.  

Photo pinoyweekly.org

According to Rosca: “Tactical interrogation includes the following: 1) holding the prisoner incommunicado for weeks or months, depending on the whims of the officers involved as well as the response of the individual to methods of interrogation; and 2) the dreaded “methods of interrogation.” The latter includes physical torture (beatings, plucking out the eyebrows hair and pubic hair one by one, pistol whippings, rifle butt blows, karate chops, kicks, burning of the flesh with cigarette butts and matches, burning the genitals of males with lighters), use of electric gadgets (electrodes attached to the genitals and nipples through which electric current is passed), and the use of drugs (the ISAF specializes in injections of sodium pentothal) without medical supervision. In the latter case, one old man appeared to have been given an overdose while inside the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) compound, as a result of which he was in stupor for three days. I have been told of cases where the minds of prisoners just disintegrated because of repeated doses of drugs given by the military; of those, however, I have no personal knowledge and would therefore limit myself to the case of this old man.”

Rosca added: “Recently, the Constabulary Security Unit put into practice a new form of torture: the arrested persons are given injections of morphine to force them into addiction and the drug is later withheld, in the hope that the anguish of withdrawal would force the prisoner into giving information. Receiving this kind of treatment to this time is Fidel Agcaoili, son of a prominent family in the Philippines and a graduate of an American university.”

Upon his release in 1985, Agcaoili could’ve led a quieter and more peaceful life, knowing fully well the unbearable costs to life and limb of remaining politically committed. 

Instead, Agcaoili helped form SELDA, the organization of former political detainees together. Don Chino Roces, Juliet de Lima Sison, Romeo Candazo, former Senator Francisco Rodrigo, lawyer Jose Mari Velez, Benjamin Guingona, and Navy Capt. Danilo Vizmanos. 

Accounts say the new democratic regime did not welcome it, but SELDA courageously filed a landmark human rights class-action suit against the Marcoses in the US.

Today, we owe Agcaoili and the SELDA co-founders a huge debt for their singular achievement of taking steps to legally holding the Marcoses accountable for human rights atrocities. Docketed as “Hilao vs Marcos,” the class-suit successfully proved atrocities of the Marcos dictatorship. The Hilao in the case title refers to the mother of and the case of PLM campus journalist and student leader Liliosa Hilao, who became the first political detainee to die while in the custody of the martial regime. 

The SELDA case became basis for the law compensating victims of the dictatorship, and established in fact and in law the barbarities committed by Ferdinand Marcos during his reign of terror and plunder. 

Agcaoili’s political commitment to democracy found him advocating the Left’s participation in the 1987 elections: He served as secretary-general of Partido ng Bayan (PnB). But at the time, the system still proved to be too insecure and unready for radical and progressive politics. Many PnB candidates, supporters, and officials were assassinated, while its offices were bombed. Right-wing forces would later admit being behind the attacks on PnB.

In 1992, Agcaoili reappeared as member of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines negotiating panel in peace talks with the Philippine government. 

GRP-NDFP first round of talks in Oslo 2016 / JonB

The talks produced more than 10  agreements, including the The Hague Joint Declaration, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, and the first substantive agreement, the  the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. 

Agcaoili took over as NDFP’s chief negotiator in October, 2016, and led the rebels’ peace overtures with the new president. 

As chief negotiator, Agcaoili personally met with Rodrigo Duterte. He pushed for the negotiation and signing of agreements on social and economic reforms, and political and constitutional reforms: reforms supported and demanded by a broad cross-section of the public. The panel even agreed to an extraordinary ceasefire to help propel the peace talks, and broached the idea of national united front against China. The President however made starkly different choices, putting the talks in limbo.

Up until the end, Agcaoili was living a simple, frugal life in Utrecht. Hours before his passing, he was still posting and sharing news and commentary on Facebook about developments in the country he loved and served as a most courageous and visionary peacemaker and revolutionary leader. ###

Manila Bulletin, July 25, 2020