“This is a welcome development though it is five years late.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Five years since the arrest, detention and release of the 43 health workers dubbed as the “Morong 43,” the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has finally issued a resolution stating that state forces violated the rights of the health workers.
“This is a welcome development though it is five years late,” Ephraim Cortez, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) assistant secretary general for legal services, told Bulatlat.com.
In its resolution dated April 21, the CHR said the health workers were tortured and deprived of their rights against unlawful search and seizure and their rights as detainees.
Though it came late, Cortez said the resolution still vindicates the detained health workers.
The CHR resolution, which the NUPL described as a document that “could have been written all in a day’s work,” has “tardily validated what every sensible person already knew even at that time – that the Morong 43 community doctors, nurses, midwives and health volunteers were brazenly illegally arrested, illegally detained, viciously tortured and routinely denied their basic constitutional rights while in military and police custody.”
The 43 health workers were arrested on Feb. 6, 2010 in Morong, Rizal while attending a community health training workshop. They were held incommunicado in a military camp, where they were interrogated and tortured to falsely admitting they were members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.
Ten months later, amid strong local and international pressure, President Aquino ordered the dropping of charges against them.
Citing the Philippine laws against torture, the CHR said “those specifically complained by the complainants/detainees cannot be more obvious.” The Republic Act No. 9745 or the Anti-Torture Act of 2009 states that torture could be either physical or mental.
“As noted by the CHR medico-legal team who visited the Morong 43, on Feb. 11, 2010, at their detention cells in Camp Capinpin, some of the detainees had abrasions and contusions in the different parts of their bodies, like wrists, foreheads and heads, which corroborated their account that they were blindfolded and handcuffed tightly for a long period,” the resolution stated.
The CHR listed down the rights violated at the time of their arrest. These were:
1. Right to counsel immediately after arrest
2. Right against incommunicado status
3. Right against prolonged and repeated interrogation to elicit information
4. Right to sleep
5. Visitation rights of families and relatives
6. During tactical interrogation, they were threatened with death and forced to admit membership in the New People’s Army
7. They were alternately threatened, and convinced to cooperate with the military in exchange of getting their cases fixed or rewards
8. They were deprived privacy, and sexually harassed
The CHR resolution said the validity of the search warrant used by the military was questionable from the very start. The warrant was issued against a certain Mario Condes, a resident of Maybangkal, Morong, Rizal, by Judge Cesar Mangobang of Imus, Cavite.
Condes, who was not among the 43 health workers, did not own the house where the training was being conducted and was never produced by the military even during the hearings conducted by the CHR.
The CHR also found it “highly irregular” that the arresting officer applied for a search warrant in Imus, Cavite and that the state forces were not able to come up with a compelling reason to justify why they resorted to seeking out a court outside the jurisdiction of the courts in Rizal province.
The warrant, the resolution read, also failed to describe the specific and exact house to be searched, which it described as “an important requirement under the Rules of Court.”
“Necessarily, as the search warrant is invalid, the search conducted on the strength of such invalid instrument is considered unlawful,” the resolution stated. It added that the arresting military team had no valid authority to enter and search the house where the Morong 43 were staying.
In this light, the CHR ruled that the arrest of the 43 health workers “is unlawful as there is no valid warrant of arrest issued against any of them.”
On its recommendations, the CHR called on the Supreme Court to look into the martial law-era doctrine of curative information, referring to the Ilagan vs. Enrile ruling. It added that while courts must adhere to judicial precedents, “the same courts are capable of overturning themselves if the current circumstances dictate a change.”
As a consequence of the unlawful search, the warrantless arrest against the Morong 43 “naturally becomes unlawful and arbitrary,” the CHR said.
But health workers found the CHR resolution as “too little and too late.”
In a telephone interview, Dr. Alexis Montes, also one of the Morong 43, said he personally wrote to the CHR three times, asking for a speedy resolution of the case after their release. But his letters were never answered.
“Pwede bang maghintay ang usapin ng karapatang pantao?”(Can a human rights issue be kept pending) he told Bulatlat.com.
Montes recalled how soldiers who interrogated them would tell them that their mere detention was already a victory. These soldiers, he said, supposedly attend human rights classes but they were denied their basic Miranda right.
“We already filed civil and criminal case against the perpetrators, though most of them were even promoted and some already retired. As an institution, the CHR could have acted expeditiously to render these perpetrators accountable for their human rights abuses,” Dr. Merry Clamor, one of the Morong 43, told Bulatlat.com.
After their release, members of the Morong 43 filed both civil and criminal charges against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and high-ranking military officials implicated in their arrest, torture and illegal detention.
These cases, however, have hardly moved. The civil case has been pending before the court since 2013, following Arroyo’s filing of petition for certiorari while the criminal charges have been up for resolution before the Office of the Ombudsman since 2014.
What prospered, Montes said, is the promotion of high-ranking military officials implicated in their ordeal. Montes said they asked the Commission on Appointments to put a stop to the promotion. But, he said, they were told that their visits would be “moot and academic” as military officials were already recommended and endorsed by the military and that their statements before the public hearing were merely “ministerial.”
“Go to the courts. Don’t complain here,” he remembered one lawmaker telling them.
Lt. Gen. Aurelio Baladad is now the commanding officer of the Eastern Mindanao Command. Another implicated military official Maj. Gen. Jorge Segovia retired from service in 2013.
“The late resolution will not, in any way, excuse the CHR under its former leadership from the dubious inaction, manifest negligence and slothful failure to forthwith resolve the complaint considering the urgency of the situation, nor will it explain the CHR’s deafening silence when the detainers and torturers were being promoted and/or assigned one after the other to sensitive positions in the military and police establishments,” the NUPL said.
The NUPL is referring to the CHR under Loreta Ann “Etta” Rosales who chaired the commission when the complaint was already submitted for resolution.
The human rights lawyers group, in a statement, stressed that the resolution was issued when its officials were already on its way out.
“Was it a cynical swan song act to cover up for slothfulness or negligence, or worse, partisanship or political design? What then, is the use and value of running to a rights body which twiddles its thumbs while the victims’ life, liberty and dignity are being defiled and trampled upon?” the NUPL said.
“Whatever it may be, these actuations of a rights body under the leadership of the former head ironically actually contribute to the perpetuation of impunity. It is complicity to an injustice,” the NUPL said.