Amanda Echanis was arrested on December 2, 2020 in Tuguegarao, a city almost 500 kilometers north of Manila, and charged with possession of firearms and explosives, a very familiar indictment for dissenters under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. Though the ordeals activists face in the Philippines are often challenging, few are challenging in the same way as Echanis’s, a young mother raising her newborn in prison.

Echanis, an activist, has been organizing peasant folk in the area since 2013. Because of this she has earned the ire of the state which continues to crack down on grassroots organizers. Echanis contested the evidence used against her at trial, claiming the weapons were planted. “There are no baby Armalites here, only a baby,” she said at the time of her arrest, as she was nursing her then one-month-old. Through the diligence of her lawyers, she was allowed to care for her child during her incarceration for the past nine months.

Echanis comes from a family of activists. And her arrest came at the heels of her father’s murder at the hands of suspected state forces on August 10, 2020. Randall Echanis was stabbed 40 times while he slept. As a toddler, Amanda spent her first birthday in prison as a companion to her mother who was jailed for her political beliefs in 1988. In a strikingly parallel ordeal, she now endures similar circumstances.

“A jail is not a place for a child, but the best place for a child is to be with his mother. Our life here is very routine, we eat, nap, bathe, and play. He’s growing up so fast, discovering the world from inside a prison,” she told The News Lens. On some days, they are allowed up to 10 minutes of sunshine and both are treated to the sights of plants and stray dogs, one of the highlights of their detention.


Free Amanda Echanis Network

Echanis on her way to prison with her infant son Randall, December 2020.

Her first-born is named after her father. She shares fears of baby Randall becoming ill with limited medicine and access to care, especially with the pandemic still in full swing. Her biggest fear, though, is her child growing up in the same bounds as her.

“I have to trust that he will understand that I am not a criminal, that I didn’t do anything wrong. At the same time, I wouldn’t change anything about our time together here and hopefully it won’t last that long,” she said.

One advantage Echanis has is the solidarity and help of her fellow inmates. Her cellmate, also a mother, takes shifts caring for baby Randall and sharing some of her knowledge on child-raising. Beyond that, the entire cell block is pretty much invested in the only baby in the entire jail. Echanis says they are a big help and that it’s nearly impossible to raise a baby alone. “It’s important to listen. I listen to my cellmate and to Randall. We shouldn’t let our children get used to things that will only make our lives more difficult, especially considering the circumstances. For example, we avoid eating any food or treats that may be too expensive or inaccessible. We know our surroundings and must keep our life simple.” Sometimes Echanis bargains with baby Randall, who she says is learning to “protest” when his play-things are taken away.

The irony of hardship while being incarcerated is both offset and compounded by the child. Echanis worries about baby Randall constantly, she wishes they weren’t in this mess but given the challenges she faces, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “In some ways, Randall makes it easier. I have a purpose from the moment I open my eyes in the morning. We have our cause, of course, fighting for land for peasants, but I also have an actual life that depends on me. He is bright, playful, and he is so handsome, just like his grandfather. He looks like Popeye sometimes when I have to put him to sleep,” she said with a laugh.

The most challenging days she says are those when she has to stay strong for Randall despite being dealt a blow to her case in court. Echanis has yet to be convicted and she and her lawyers feel that the state is intentionally prolonging proceedings to keep her incarcerated for as long as possible.

“The anticipation of my hearing can get intense. I wait for months and usually it gets postponed because of a technicality. It’s frustrating. Randall is growing up as fast as the proceedings are slow. Meanwhile, I just try to make the most out of everyday,” Echanis said.

The National Union of People’s Lawyers, or NUPL, said the conduct of the police during Echanis arrest was highly questionable. The search warrant was served more than five hours after the initial search was conducted. This means that there was ample time for the authorities to fabricate evidence and documents while Echanis was immobilized.

To compound matters further for Echanis, witnesses in the community where she was staying who could deliver testimonies of her innocence have reportedly been harassed by state forces. Even the judge, has withdrawn from the case. Defense lawyer Luchi Perez told The News Lens, “The side of the accused is led to believe that the withdrawal of the judge was due to the intimidation and harassment by state forces. There are reports from residents of the barangay where Echanis was staying that they were constantly being monitored and questioned by the military on several occasions.”

Echanis still weeps for her father, a year after his death. She has not been able to hold her mother throughout their shared grief and now she faces mounting difficulties with her detention and the fears of uncertainty as baby Randall continues to grow. Despite the odds against her, she feels having a positive outlook is imperative to her situation and misery is a luxury reserved for when she is finally able to visit her father’s grave.

“I’m really happy about being a new mother and that I get to be with my child everyday. I feel like I learn more from him than he from me. It’s a humbling experience and a continuous process of learning and unlearning. Just like when we commit ourselves to the oppressed, we unlearn of selfishness and acquire selflessness, we unlearn our baggage and gain tools to toughen our hearts,” she said.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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