“We are happy but we are still angry. In the first place, the Morong 43 are innocent. They should not have been detained,” Ofelia Beltran-Balleta, mother of Jane Balleta, one of the Morong 43, said in an interview with Bulatlat.
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — After President Benigno S. Aquino III announced, on December 10, that he has ordered the dropping of charges against the Morong 43, their relatives who were gathered at the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) cried with joy.
The 43 health workers were arrested on Feb. 6 in Morong, Rizal while conducting a health skills training when 300 combined elements of the police and military raided the rest house where they were staying. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives, tagged as members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and subjected to physical and psychological torture. The NPA is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
The Morong 43 had been on hunger strike and their relatives were also fasting since Dec. 3 when President Aquino announced his order.
“We are happy but we are still angry. In the first place, the Morong 43 are innocent. They should not have been detained,” Ofelia Beltran-Balleta, mother of Jane Balleta, one of the Morong 43, said in an interview with Bulatlat. “After Aquino repeatedly said ‘Let the courts decide,’ he finally ordered the dropping of charges against the Morong 43. Thanks to the international community, organizations and individuals who supported our struggle. This is a victory of the Filipino people,” Balleta said in a speech at the rally at the foot of Chino Roces (formerly Mendiola bridge) on Dec. 10.
In October, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima submitted her review and recommendations on the case of the Morong 43. When asked about the said review, Aquino said the arrest of the 43 can be considered fruit of the poisonous tree and that errors should be rectified. But he said, he was leaving it to the courts decide.
After two dialogues held by relatives with Malacañang officials, Aquino refused to budge.
Supporters criticized Aquino for his refusal to act on the case of the Morong 43.
When a delegation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) came to the country early December and met with de Lima, the justice secretary said she would submit another memorandum to the President on the case of the Morong 43. De Lima told the WCC that she would act to have the charges against the Morong 43 withdrawn by Dec. 10 or before Christmas.
“The Morong 43 have been detained for ten months already in two camps. Still, they had to resort to a hunger strike – the highest form of struggle they could wage – before Aquino acted on their plight,” Roneo Clamor, husband of Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor, one of the 43 detained health workers, said.
After the arrest, the Morong 43 were held under military captivity in Camp Capinpin, Tanay, Rizal for almost three months. The legal counsels of the Morong 43 and then Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairwoman de Lima had to push for the transfer of the 43 to a civilian detention facility. On May 1, thirty-eight detained health workers were transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa while five have remained under military detention.
Clamor, also secretary general of Karapatan, added that the ten months in detention of the Morong 43 have not been easy. He said even the relatives experienced harassment and surveillance.
“We do not owe Aquino any gratitude,” Fr. Diony Cabillas, spokesman of Selda, an organization of former political prisoners, said in his speech at the rally. “If the Morong 43 did not stage a hunger strike, they would not have been released.”
Cabillas added that former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, after assuming power, immediately released almost 400 political prisoners.
Julius Matibag, one of the legal counsels of the Morong 43 and a member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), said Aquino’s announcement proves that their clients are innocent. Matibag said the DOJ has yet to file the motion to withdraw the charges. He said they are hoping that the Morong 43 would be released by next week.
Asked whether any of the Morong 43 has standing warrants of arrest for other charges – because Aquino said those who do, could not be freed yet – Matibag said, “No document has been officially submitted to the courts regarding alleged cases. Until they produce official documents, our clients should be released upon the grant of the motion to withdraw [of the information] by the Morong court.”
Matibag added that the perpetrators of the arrest and torture of the Morong 43 should be held accountable.
Release All Political Prisoners
Matibag said Aquino should also look into the cases of other political prisoners. “The Aquino administration should have a clear policy against detention of political dissenters,” Matibag said.
“There are many more political prisoners who should be released. All of them are victims of Oplan Bantay Laya,” Cabillas said. The Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL) is the counterinsurgency program of the Arroyo government and has been extended by the new administration.
Cabillas said the Aquino government added 22 persons to the list of political prisoners. He said there are 369 political prisoners all over the country, including the Morong 43. Majority were arrested during the Arroyo administration.“It is only through the mass movement that political prisoners would be freed,” Cabillas concluded.