Free all political prisoners!
Pundits, activists and civil libertarians alike are still speculating on what actually led to last week’s order by President Aquino, auspiciously announced on Human Rights Day, for the Justice Department to withdraw all charges against the Morong 43, a move expected to lead to the court’s ordering their immediate release from prison.
Mr. Aquino had hemmed and hawed interminably about what he would do about the 43 health workers arrested in Morong, Rizal just months before the end of Mrs. Gloria Arroyo’s term of office. They stood accused of being members of the New People’s Army who were undergoing training to make bombs. They were subsequently charged with the non-bailable offense of illegal possession of explosives and firearms.
In time Mr. Aquino publicly acknowledged that the arrest of the Morong 43 was illegal and therefore all the so-called evidence being brandished by the military were next to useless in pursuing a case in court.
Still he insisted that the matter was out of his hands and only the courts could order the detainees’ release.
This pronouncement sat quite well with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The AFP spokesmen continued to harp on the guilt of the 43 and to deny any illegality in the raid on the Morong seminar house and the rounding up of the health workers. But they were in complete agreement with Mr. Aquino that only the courts should decide the fate of the 43.
Facing the government’s intransigence, the detainees undertook their ultimate weapon: they began an indefinite hunger strike. This was accompanied by sympathy hunger strikes and fasting by their supporters including other political prisoners.
Still, Mr. Aquino was unmoved. As late as three days before his order to the DOJ to withdraw the charges against the 43, he was quoted by media as saying “with finality” that he would leave the decision to the courts.
What allowed the Morong 43 to eventually prevail? Undeniably it was their courage; the refusal of the majority to be cowed in the face of torture, threats and cajolement by their captors; and their steadfast struggle to prove their innocence that made this astounding victory possible.
Equally important, the health workers strength of spirit arose from their not giving in to selfish impulses, i.e. each going their own way and trying to save his or her neck regardless of the rest. Perhaps being health workers, they were wont not to think only of their own well being; they were also fighting for the rights of others.
Underlying their fortitude is the reality that truth has always been on the Morong 43’s side. The facts and circumstances of the their arrest pieced together from their own accounts and from the investigation and public hearings conducted by the Commission on Human Rights provided incontrovertible proof that, at the very least, their rights against unreasonable search and seizure had been grossly violated.
What aroused local and international outrage was the way the 43 were blindfolded, manacled, tortured and subjected to all sorts of threats and indignities the whole time that they were in military custody, all in the name of “national security”.
The campaign to vilify and demonize the 43 as “communist terrorists” who constituted a “threat to society” utterly failed when it became obvious that this was part and parcel of the military’s squid tactics to cover up their human rights fiasco.
No longer would reckless accusations that one is an NPA so easily justify the military and police practice of egregiously violating basic human rights as part of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.
The government also grossly underestimated public sympathy for these doctors, nurses and community health workers ministering to the health needs of poor and underserved communities. The head of the Philippine Medical Association asserted that it mattered little if in the course of their humanitarian work these health workers actually treated members of the NPA since theirs is not to discriminate against patients on the basis of political beliefs.
Perhaps the case of the Morong 43 had dragged on for far too long with no indications of going away.
Perhaps, Mr. Aquino’s advisers were able to convince him that the political cost of his continuing to wash his hands of the military’s blunder was already too high while the legal remedies were quite simple and straightforward.
After all, objectively speaking, it was the unsavory leadership of Mrs. Arroyo over the military that was on the line not that of the new commander-in-chief.
With Human Rights Day coming up, it seemed most propitious that Mr. Aquino should make the much-waited announcement that his administration was taking the necessary steps to bring about freedom for the 43.
Whatever and whoever convinced Mr. Aquino to do the right thing, it is entirely to his credit that he finally did so, for he could have chosen to tread the same crooked path as his predecessor.
Perhaps the more important question at this time is what Mr. Aquino’s action on the Morong 43 signifies for other victims of human rights violations under the Arroyo regime.
Of immediate concern are the more than 350 detained all over the country on politically-motivated charges, i.e. like the Morong 43, illegally arrested and charged for crimes they did not commit or alleged officials and members of the CPP/NPA charged with common crimes like murder, kidnapping, arson and robbery, instead of with the appropriate crime of rebellion.
There are also the special cases of individuals designated as consultants of the National Democratic Front in the GRP-NDFP peace talks who are either languishing in jail or who have been forced to go underground to avoid arrest on persecutory charges invented by the Arroyo regime’s now defunct Inter-Agency Legal Action Group. The latter include Messrs. Rafael Baylosis, Randall Echanis and Vic Ladlad.
Not only do these cases highlight blatant violations of safety and immunity guarantees jointly agreed upon by the two parties, these constitute continuing stumbling blocks to the progress of the peace negotiations.
It can only be hoped that the impending resumption of the formal GRP-NDF peace talks may provide forthwith the favorable conditions for granting freedom to all political prisoners. #
Published in Business World
17-18 December 2010