By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — When they heard the Sandiganbayan ruling acquitting their tormentors, members of the Morong 43 were so enraged they cried.
In a decision dated July 1, the Sandiganbayan 7th Division dismissed the last criminal case — violation of the right to counsel — filed by the health workers against Army and police officers who arrested them on Feb. 6, 2010. The court said the victims failed to provide the names of their lawyers at the time of their arrest, and failed to identify the accused.
In a press conference, July 20, Mercy Castro broke into tears as she said, “We have suffered so much and now we’re the ones being blamed.”
“It’s like a wound that has not healed and has become fresh again,” Castro said in Filipino.
The 43 health workers were arrested nine years ago while undergoing a training in Morong, Rizal. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives, and publicly branded as members of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Lack of evidence and public pressure compelled then President Benigno Aquino III to order their release after ten months in detention. The Morong 43 filed torture, robbery and violations of Miranda doctrine against several military and police officers. The torture and robbery charges were dismissed by the Ombudsman in October 2015.
What do we have to prove?
Dr. Alexis Montes said he could not believe that the Sandiganbayan junked their complaint for “insufficiency of evidence.”
“I asked Zaragosa to allow me to contact my family. I even gave him a number. He just smirked,” Montes said, referring to Cristobal Zaragoza, then the intelligence officer of the 2nd Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.
Montes said denying them access to lawyers and their families constitutes violation of their rights.
The community doctor recalled the long hours of interrogation, how he was blindfolded and handcuffed for many hours. “And they’d say there was no torture?”
Dr. Merry Mia Clamor did not hide her frustration with the ruling. “What do we have to prove? We were illegally arrested, tortured, incarcerated for more than 10 months but the burden of proof is still on us.”
Jane Balleta pointed out that they were released because there was no evidence against them.
“We were freed because our rights were violated. The perpetrators have to be accountable,” Balleta said.
Ephraim Cortez, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) and counsel of the Morong 43, said they will question the decision.
Cortez explained that the jurisprudence cited by the Sandiganbayan could not be applied to the Morong 43 case.
Sandigandbayan cited People vs. Rapeza in its decision, saying that the arrested should have a counsel of his choice. Cortez said that in that ruling, the arrested person was made to execute a confession and the police provided him a lawyer, which he said, is very different with the circumstances of the Morong 43.
“The Morong 43 were held incommunicado for several days. They were denied access to their relatives and lawyers.” Cortez said.
Cortez, along with colleagues and families of the Morong 43, went to Camp Capinpin in the afternoon of Feb. 6, 2010. They were denied access to the detainees. Cortez was able to talk to his clients on Feb. 11, or five days after the arrest.
Fight not over
Despite the legal setback, the Morong 43 are determined to pursue justice.
“We could not move until we get justice,” Castro said.
The civil case they filed against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and military officials is pending with a Quezon City local court.
Clamor said their fight is a fight against impunity. “The military is emboldened to violate our rights because no one is being punished,” she said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines welcomed the Sandiganbayan ruling. In a report, AFP Public Affairs Chief Colonel Noel Detoyato said the decision “will serve as an inspiration to our officers and men in the field that being true and passionate in their tasks will protect them from unscrupulous groups and personalities whose objective is to slow down the momentum towards peace and order.”
Dr. Geneve Rivera of the Health Action for Human Rights (HAHR) said Detoyato’s statement “appears to encourage the AFP to commit more human rights violations.”
Rivera said she could not forget Detoyato. “He was the one who denied us access to our colleagues. He denied having custody of the Morong 43 while he was still in Camp Capinpin,” Rivera said.