The military has since concocted many versions of who the 43 really are. At first, the military alleged that the 43 were not health workers but bomb-makers. Later, the military would allege that the 43 were indeed health workers but were also undergoing training in making explosives. The military now calls them “medics” of the NPA.
The military also goes on to make the preposterous claim that Dr. Alexis Montes, a 62-year old surgeon, is a member of the NPA Special Operations Group tasked to assassinate Gen. Jovito Palparan.
According to CHR Chair Leila de Lima, even assuming for the sake of argument that the 43 health workers are NPA members, they still have the right to due process, including the presumption of innocence and the right to be free from torture and other degrading treatment.
Have the 43 health workers taken legal action? What has been done to secure their release?
The health workers through their relatives and their organizations have filed before the Supreme Court a petition for the writ of habeas corpus last February 9. The Supreme Court ordered the AFP to produce the 43 at the hearing at the Court of Appeals on February 12, 2010. The military defied the SC by not bringing the 43 to the scheduled hearing citing alleged security reasons and lack of time to prepare. The AFP received a strong rebuke from the CA and was ordered to produce the 43 at another hearing on February 15. As of this writing, the CA has yet to issue its decision on the petition.
A complaint has also been filed before the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), asking it to investigate the allegations of rights abuses committed against the 43. The CHR has issued the order for the AFP to present the Morong 43 before the Commission in a scheduled hearing on March 18.
Who are supporting campaign to free the 43?
The campaign “Free the 43” is supported by a broad range of sectors of society, from colleagues in the health professions, lawyers, lawmakers, political leaders across party lines, religious formations, human rights advocates, artists, and advocates and beneficiaries of community-based health programs where the community health workers render their services. It is a national and international campaign calling on the Arroyo government to immediately release the Morong 43 and drop all charges against them. It is a campaign that supports the legal defense of the 43 and undertakes advocacy work and mobilizations. The campaign also supports the immediate needs of the families of the 43 in terms of visits, psycho-social counseling and other forms of concrete assistance.
Why are there volunteer community health workers?
In the Philippines, where seven out of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a doctor and where public health services are sorely lacking or inaccessible, non-government organizations (NGOs) like CHD and COMMED play an important role by bringing health services to the people. This means that these non-government organizations try to reach poor and underserved communities, set up community-based health programs, organize health committees, and train community health workers (CHWs). This way, the poor people living in urban and rural areas can attend to their health needs in the absence or dearth of government services.
For 37 years, community-based health program practitioners have been training volunteers who would like to become CHWs regardless of their educational attainment. CHD, for example, has trained tens of thousands of community health workers nationwide. Training participants are selected by the people themselves with little regard to their educational and socio-economic background nor their religious or political beliefs, so as long as they commit themselves to serving the people in their communities.
The Community First Responders’ Health Training is one of the courses CHD offers to community health workers. The training is in response to the assessed needs of the communities after the disastrous effects of the lack of disaster preparedness in the wake of tropical storms “Ondoy” and “Pepeng”. The community health workers are also the frontliners in providing health services during disasters, so additional health skills are needed for them to be able to respond adequately, especially since many communities have no access to government health services.
Is this the first time doctors, health workers and volunteers have become victims of human rights abuse?
No, there have been similar attacks against health workers in the past. These can be better understood in the context of the government’s counterinsurgency programs, most especially the Arroyo regime’s US-supported Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL) or Operation Freedom Watch.
The illegal arrest and detention of 43 doctors and health workers is directly linked to OBL. The latter has given rise to a rash of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, illegal arrests and detention and mass displacement of poor communities. Under OBL the military has been given a carte blanche by the Arroyo regime to disregard the most basic tenets of due process and human rights. For the AFP, once a person is accused of being an “insurgent” or “terrorist”, he or she is guilty until proven innocent. This is the kind of militarist mindset that the Arroyo regime has in pursuing its counter-insurgency program.
The military has a track record of targeting several other doctors and health personnel.
Just recently, on February 23, 2010, Ronald Capitania, a community health worker of Sipalay, Negros Occidental was shot by two unidentified bonnet-clad men on a motorcycle. Luckily, he survived the attack.