November 11, 2010

Take two on the Morong 43

One would wish that at least part of then presidential candidate “Noynoy” Aquino’s campaign line were unequivocally true - that having been a victim of oppression under martial rule when his father “Ninoy” was kept in solitary confinement by his arch enemy, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, he knows what injustice means.

If so, then he would have empathy with the plight of the Morong 43, health professionals and workers all, who have been detained unjustly for nine months now on the basis of spurious charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

The military had raided a seminar house in Morong, Rizal owned by a well-respected infectious disease expert from the Philippine General Hospital, using a faulty warrant of arrest for a person whose existence, nobody, not even the authorities, has verified up to this time

They rounded up all the participants in a health training course being given under the auspices of the non-government organization, Council for Health and Development, known for its pioneering work in community-based primary health care.

They produced firearms and alleged bomb-making paraphernalia as evidence; since these were garnered without benefit of independent witnesses such as baranggay officials, there are grounds to believe that these were planted by the raiders themselves.

The 43 were hauled off, blindfolded and handcuffed, to a military camp. They were interrogated, subjected to various forms of physical and mental torture, and kept incommunicado until their lawyers and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) were able to assert their right to counsel and visitation by relatives and human rights workers.

A public prosecutor brought in by the military hastily conducted inquest proceedings (to determine if there was probable cause to charge the detainees) but did so without affording the forty-three their right to counsel.

A case was then filed with the regional trial court in Morong for which reason the Court of Appeals (CA), rejected the defense lawyers’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus, on the technicality that the filing of the case “cured” any irregularities in the arrest of the hapless forty-three.

The CA ruling is pending on appeal with the Supreme Court. Defense lawyers argue that the gross violations of the forty three’s right to due process and the flimsiness of the evidence call for the dismissal of the charges against the health workers. The defense lawyers have so far prevailed on the Morong RTC to defer arraignment of the accused in light of the SC appeal.

Meantime, despite resistance from military and police authorities, thirty eight of the forty three were transferred to a regular police detention facility. In this way, they were spared further harassment and rough treatment coupled with enticements to cooperate with their military captors.

Unfortunately, five of the detainees succumbed to the “bad cop-good cop” tactics of the military, purportedly confessed their guilt and currently remain under the custody of the military. Some of their relatives however attest to the severe pressure made to bear on them including threats made by interrogators against their family members.

Hearings conducted by the CHR under then Chair Leila de Lima were able to establish the plain truth that the case of the Morong 43 is a case of a military operation pretending to be a police action for which a patently defective arrest warrant was obtained.

Acting on raw intelligence information, the military pounced on the forty three, initially claiming that they were NPA combatants undergoing training in making bombs. Later, when it could not be denied that the forty three were indeed either medical professionals or community health workers, they amended their line saying they were NPA medics undergoing training in “combat life-saving techniques and bomb-making”.

The AFP trumpeted that the “accomplishment was the biggest victory of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign in recent years”. To underscore the point, they awarded the head of the raiding team a medal for his role in the “accomplishment”.

For the past nine months, numerous prominent groups and personalities have joined calls for the immediate release of the Morong 43. They include several former secretaries of the Department of Health; the dean and professors of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine; the Association of Philippine Medical Colleges; the Philippine Medical Association; the Philippine Nurses Association; and several lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate. International and national groups of lawyers, human rights advocates and churches have also joined the clamor.

But bottom line is the forty three are still languishing in jail. Dr. Alexis Montes, the sixty-year-old physician in the group expressed his frustration by saying that every second in jail feels like an eternity. Two pregnant mothers among the forty three have given birth. Another doctor, Dr. Mary Clamor was rushed to the hospital because of uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension and infected skin wounds aggravated by poor jail conditions. The rest are straining under the weight of uncertainty and the difficult conditions they and their families are subjected to.

Justice Secretary de Lima has submitted to President Aquino her recommendations and, by all indications, these are favorable. The latter has already acknowledged that the “evidence” against the forty-three was obtained through irregular means. He rightly stated, “It is a generally accepted principle that what the lawyers call the fruit of the poisoned tree, evidence wrongly gotten, cannot be used.”

Yet Mr. Aquino chooses to drag his feet on the case arguing that it is “up to the courts” to decide.

In fact, the Executive Department can expedite the release of the Morong 43 in two ways. The Office of the Solicitor General can concur or not object to the defense petition for habeas corpus pending with the Supreme Court and thus give way to the grant of the petition. Or the justice department can order the reinvestigation and thereby reverse the erroneous filing of the case filed by its errant fiscal. The Morong court can then dismiss the case accordingly and order the instant release of the forty-three.

In contrast to Mr. Aquino’s decisive, some say precipitous, grant of amnesty to alleged military rebels, his continued inaction on the Morong 43 rankles. It is also fuelling suspicion that Mr. Aquino is hostage to the generals who object to the release in the guise of such being a setback to the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

No ifs and buts, it’s time Mr. Aquino mustered political will on such a blatant case of injustice: Mr. President, release the Morong 43! #

Published in Business World
12-13 November 2010

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