(APWLD’s statement on the case of Morong 43)
Eight months have passed since the illegal arrest of 43 innocent health care workers now known to human rights defenders across the world as the “Morong 43”. APWLD demands that the Aquino Administration of the Philippines take immediate action to unconditionally release the health care workers. The illegal arrest, illegal detention, denial of justice and torture committed against the 43 health workers are gross violations of their human rights. The methods resorted to by the military are clearly unconstitutional, show a blatant disregard for the rule of law and pose a grave threat to the credibility of the Aquino administration.
Among the 43 is Maria Mercedes Castro, due to give birth this month. Ms. Castro has twice been denied doctor checkups despite a court order. Judilyn Oliveros, also one of the Morong 43, gave birth last July and is under hospital arrest with her baby at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila. Next month, just four months after the birth, Judilyn will be separated from her baby and returned to prison. As women political prisoners, their rights have been doubly violated as they are subjected to and are vulnerable to sexual abuse, humiliation and torture. As mothers, the human rights abuses compound again as conditions in detention are not suitable for pregnancy, recovery, breastfeeding and proper care for children. For humanitarian reasons, Castro, Oliveros and the rest of Morong 43 should be immediately released from incarceration.
At the time of their arrest on February 6, 2010, the health care workers were taking part in First Responders Training programme, the group formed after witnessing the slow and insufficient response of the previous government’s response to disaster in their communities. APWLD believes the illegal arrest and persecution of the Morong 43 is a direct attack on the group as active human rights defenders and critics of the Arroyo regime. Local human rights groups report that this is a common way to harass and silence anyone who is critical of the government. In June of this year, before the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, the Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), Eric Sottas declared that, “the Morong 43 is an example of the criminalization of social protest in the Philippines”. He went on to elaborate on how as human rights defenders, advocating for the rights of the vulnerable, are faced with violations of their own rights.
APWLD asserts that under both Philippine and international law the arrest and continued detention of the Morong 43 is illegal and reprehensible.
For over half of their incarceration the health care workers were held without any official charges filed against them. Their names were not even present on the warrant used to arrest them though they were arrested for being accused of membership with the New People’s Army. On order of the Supreme Court the military was forced to bring the prisoners to a hearing of the petition of habeas corpus. The military refused and proceeded to hastily charge the health care workers with fabricated weapon possession charges, despite no concrete evidence being presented to date.
The petition of habeas corpus was finally denied by the Court of Appeals in an exceptional way on 10 March 2010. Originally, two Justices in the three-member panel responsible for the ruling of the petition had voted for the petition of habeas corpus. However, on the same day, two extra justices were assigned to the panel; with the additional votes, the petition was overturned and dismissed. The justices who vetoed the petition of habeas corpus based it on the Ilagan vs. Enrile, a doctrine promulgated by a divided Supreme Court during the oppressive Marcos dictatorship when thousands of political dissidents were detained.
Under strong pressure from international human rights groups, President Aquino has now ordered Justice Secretary and former Human Rights Commissioner, Leila de Lima to review the case to determine if the detention and indictment of the arrested health workers had a legal basis. We have however already witnessed how the judicial system has gravely failed the Morong 43.
In order for President Aquino to retain the rule of law and the credibility of his government he must prove that he is not being controlled by military generals who are responsible for the illegal arrest and killing of human rights defenders, he must immediately and unconditionally release the Morong 43.
This is an opportunity to prove that the culture of impunity towards corruption and human rights abuses that ruled during the Arroyo regime is not acceptable under his administration. Aquino must respect the rule of law, he must respect human rights and he must unconditionally release the Morong 43.