“We know that our enemies are human rights violators who respect no one but it is important to file the case if only to show that the government is violating its own laws.” – Morong 43
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – In an unprecedented move, eight health workers filed criminal charges against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for human rights violations under the principle of command responsibility.
The eight were among the 43 health workers, collectively known as the Morong 43, who were arrested on February 6, 2010 by combined elements of military and police. They were branded as members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Most the Morong 43 were released after ten months, when President Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III was compelled to order the withdrawal of the charges due to overwhelming international and local pressure.
Besides Arroyo, Gen. Victor Ibrado, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Gen. Delfin Bangit, former commanding general of the Philippine Army and Lt. Gen. Jorge Segovia, Col. Aurelio Baladad, Col. Cristobal Zaragosa, Maj. Manuel Tabion, then officers of the 2nd Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, P/Supt. Marion Balonglong of the Rizal Provincial Police Office, and several others were also charged for violations of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009, Republic Act 7438 (Rights of Persons Arrested, Detained or under Custodial Investigation), and robbery.
“This will not be easy but it must be done,” Jane Beltran Balleta, one of the Morong 43, said in her speech immediately after the filing of the complaint. “We know that our enemies are human rights violators who respect no one but it is important to file the case if only to show that the government is violating its own laws.”
Other complainants are doctors Alexis Montes and Merry Mia-Clamor, government nurse Gary Liberal, midwife Theresa Quinawayan and community health workers Reynaldo Macabenta, Mercy Castro and Samson Castillo.
In their joint complaint-affidavit, the eight health workers said they were subjected to torture, both physical and psychological. Medical certificates proving allegations of torture were attached to the complaint as annexes.
The complainants said personal belongings, office equipment and cash amounting to more than P165,000 ($3,837) were taken by the arresting team and were never returned.
Slow grind of justice
“We are also here because it seems that nothing is happening with the previous cases we filed,” Liberal said.
Weeks after their arrest, the Morong 43, through their lawyers, filed a complaint against military and police officials for human rights violations before the Commission on Human Rights, then headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. Until now, no resolution has been issued.
“We all know that the CHR has limited powers but it could at least issue recommendations,” Dr. Montes, one of the complainants, said. “Since the new leadership took over, nothing has been said about our case. Montes said immediately after their release, he wrote a personal letter to CHR chairwoman Loreta Ann Rosales and got no reply. “I waited for one year and wrote her again. Until now, I have not received any word from her,” Montes said.
In March 2010, the Morong 43 also filed an appeal before the Supreme Court asking to reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals that junked their habeas corpus plea on the basis of a martial law era doctrine.
In April 2011, six of the Morong 43 filed a civil case against Arroyo and other military officials before a Quezon City local court. The case is hardly moving, as summons against some of the respondents were returned unserved.
Promotion of Morong 43 captors
Liberal said the filing of the case is also their reaction to the promotion of Segovia, Baladad and Zaragosa who had direct participation and knowledge of their torture and detention.
Segovia was promoted to major general and will soon head the Eastern Mindanao Command. Then colonel Baladad has been promoted to brigadier general and Zaragosa, formerly a colonel, is now lieutenant colonel.
The Council for Health and Development (CHD), a non-government organization whose staff were among the Morong 43, and human rights group Karapatan, sent a letter to the Commission on Appointments (CA) expressing their opposition to the confirmation of the promotion of Segovia and Baladad. The Commission on Appointments already confirmed the promotion of Zaragosa.
“We understand that any officer who has a pending case against him in court must not be promoted. Thus, we take exception to the promotion and confirmation of Segovia, Baladad as well as Zaragosa, who was promoted in February 2012, as they are among the respondents in cases mentioned above. We therefore ask the Commission if there are measures which it can do to rectify this transgression,” Marie Hilao-Enriquez, Karapatan chairwoman, said.
“President Benigno Aquino III said it himself, that the arrest and detention of the health workers are ‘fruits of the poisonous tree.’ It is however, lamentable that instead of immediately prosecuting those responsible for their illegal arrest and incarceration, the promotion of these military and police officers is being undertaken. It is déjà vu, similar to the period of former president Arroyo, when Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. who, despite many cases filed against him, was heaped upon with promotions and accolades,” Cristina Palabay, Karapatan spokesperson and convenor of the End Impunity Alliance, said.
Palparan, Arroyo’s favourite general, remains at large after a local court in Bulacan issued a warrant of arrest against him and three others for charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention in connection with the disappearance of two University of the Philippines (UP) students.
Edre Olalia, a member of the panel of private prosecutors and secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), explained the significance of the complaint. “First of all, this is probably going to be the first criminal indictment in the country for human rights violations against a former president. Equally important is that this is going to be the first acid test of the actual applicability of the doctrine of command responsibility in a criminal case. It is also a touchstone of the effectivity of the Anti-Torture Act. Lastly, it is a clear demonstration that despite the dangers and difficulties, and notwithstanding the inaction of Aquino himself to run after the perpetrators, human rights victims and defenders will not let up.”
Former dictator president Ferdinand Marcos was sued for damages by victims of human rights abuses. Former president Joseph Estrada was charged with and convicted of plunder. The Aquino administration, through the Department of Justice (DOJ), has so far filed charges of electoral sabotage against Arroyo and none in relation to more serious crimes like plunder and human rights abuses. Arroyo is detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City.
Olalia said the principle of command responsibility was validated as applicable in the Philippines when a unanimous en banc Supreme Court issued such holding in the November 2011 case of human rights victim Noriel Rodriguez. Said decision states that the president, as commander-in-chief of the military, can be held responsible for human rights violations.
Ironically, the Anti-Torture Act was signed into law by Arroyo in 2005.
Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III received the complaint. Baraan said the DOJ will form a panel of prosecutors. “Of course, we will go through the process. We will afford everyone, including the respondents, due process,” Baraan said. “We’ll see, based on our investigation, where we can go from here.”