Case of the Negros Nine
On the evening of Friday May 6, 1983 Bishop Antonio Fortich, the Bishop of Bacolod on the island of Negros made sure that his three priests and 6 church workers were saftely locked in their cell in the Kabankalan Jail before returning to Bacolod. In Bacolod he announced the cancellation of all public masses in the Diocese for the coming Sunday. There would be just one mass in Kabankalan to which all were invited to attend. Cardinal Sin in Manila supported Fortich and this sent panic waves through the regime. Marcos ordered house arrest for the priests to cool the situation. The three priests refused to leave the jail and their companions. Only when the layworkers agreed to the proposal of the Bishop did the three relunctanly agreed to leave. Fortich explained that for multiple murder their was no bail. So if the priests were out on house arrest then it would be easier to get the layworkers out. Cardinal Sin had gone out of his way to get all out of jail but had failed. We could not now embarass the Cardinal as we would need his support in the future. Compromises had to be made. The ban on masses was lifted. Eight months and 17 hearings later would still see the 6 in jail and the priests under house arrest. Delays and postponements dogged the case.
On January 5, 1984 the three priests hatched a plan to land themselves back in jail. They sent a telegram to Marcos refusing to abide by the terms of house arrest and then presented themselves to the Bishop who then handed them over to the military commander for “safe keeping” till Marcos replied. The priests were “guests” of the military for three weeks. While in military custody the court decided after 17 hearings that no bail would be given and that there was a likelyhood that the nine would be convicted. On the 26th of January the three priest “escaped” from the military compound with the help of media and fellow priests. They went to the Provincial Jail were the 6 layworkers were and asked to visit them. After half an hour the priests were asked to leave. They refused. The jail authorities were totally confused. They had never encounted a situation where people actually broke into jail! Media, local and international, waited anxiously outside with the Nine’s lawyers. The priests were finally allowed to stay as “guests” until word came from Manila.
A few days later the priests were accepted as bona fide residents of the Provincial Jail. The case was now to begin in earnest, because while the priests were out under house arrest pressure was off the regime. The regime was now on the defensive.
The organizing skills of the Nine were soon put to good use in the service of the other prisioners. Good lights were installed in all the cells so that the prisioners could work on their projects at night, games were organized, the cleanup of the courtyard and cells by the local firebrigade was done through friends and the cell leaders organized into a commitee to work for improvements in the jail. One guard was suspended for three months for beating one of the prisioners. The nine had organized the complaint.
Negros Nine consulting with Atty. Diokno
The authorites were hoping that the nine would jump the fence. The Nine, however, settled in for the long haul. The vast majority of the prisioners were on remand. Some had been in for 12 years without any resolution. The nine had their work cut out for them.
Over the next five months there were a further 33 court hearings. At one stage the regime offered a pardon to all. The Nine refused even though they were told that it did not imply guilt.
Fearful of what might happen to the layworkers, five were married men with families, the two foreigner priests, Gore and O’Brien, agreed to leave the country voluntary if all chargres were dropped against all. The priests would not compromise on their innocence but would be prepared to leave in the interest of the layworkers. Fr Vicente Dagan had already been released when a petition to quash the case had been presented a few months earlier, even though he had been “identifed” as the leader of the liquidation squad by regime witnesses. The regime jumped at the opportunity to end the case which had become an intenational embarassment for Marcos. The lying witnesses had been suitably demolished by the Nine’s battery of volunteer lawyers.
Negros Nine on HUNGER STRIKE
On July 3, 1984 a less than magnanomous decision of the court freed the remaing 8 saying that there was not enough evidence to convict.
The two priests had agreed to leave within a month of the dismissal of all charges. The layworkers were put under the protective custody of the court, the Bishop and the military. However, the main ire of the regime was more targeted at the two foreign priests. The regime had, nevertheless, bought it on themselves by their own ineptness.
Gore and O’Brien said goodbye to their parishioners and went into voluntary exile. They did not know how long that would be.
In January 1986 the dictatorsihip fell through non violent people power. The dictator was accepted in exile by the US and stayed in Hawaii untill his death. The US had given full support to the Marcos regime so it was fitting that he should end his days there.
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