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Hope Persists for Jailed Health Workers in Philippines

Beatrice Paez

MONTREAL, Canada, Aug 25 2010 (IPS) - A mother accused of backing insurgents in the Philippines and her newborn son are awaiting their release from prison, in a case that has gained international attention.

Amaryllis Enriquez, the head of Karapatan, an alliance of individuals and organisations that investigate human rights cases, told IPS a new motion was filed Monday by the lawyers of Judilyn Oliveros, who gave birth in July and was brought back to prison last week after the court denied an appeal to extend her temporary release for six months to nurse her baby.

Oliveros is among a group of 43 people – two doctors, one registered nurse, two midwives and 38 volunteer health workers – who were arrested on Feb. 6 for the illegal possession of explosives and firearms. Five have allegedly admitted to being members of the New People’s Army (NPA) but Karapatan stands behind all 43, insisting that they were tortured into confessing.

The NPA is the armed wing of the Communist Party in the Philippines, which has been waging an insurgency since 1969.

The police and military operative responsible for the arrest claim to have seized three grenades, improvised landmines, a pistol with seven bullets and C4 explosives from the residence of Dr. Melecia Velmonte, an infectious disease specialist who is one of the detained.

The military charge that the so-called Morong 43 serve as medical assistants to the guerilla platoons of the NPA. “The government forces were able to prevent a possible major attack to be perpetrated by the NPA bandits during its anniversary,” says the press release issued by the Philippine army.

The Morong 43 counter that they had gathered for a health training session and that the warrant issued was defective because it did not contain any of the names of those who were arrested.

The prisoners deny allegations of ties to the NPA, and instead claim membership to a joint initiative led by two NGOs, the Community Medicine Development Foundation (COMMED) and the Council for Health and Development (CHD). These community health workers administer services otherwise unavailable when a natural disaster strikes or where medical services are unaffordable to the community.

Enriquez explained to IPS that the police were searching for someone by the name of Mario Condes, and that the warrant did not specify an address but in effect covered the entire neighbourhood.

“When they rounded up the Morong 43, there was no Mario Condes. The commissioner asked the arresting officer – so you haven’t got Condes but are you still looking for him? ‘No sir’, was his response,” said Enriquez.

The police and the army dismiss accusations that the warrant was invalid, arguing that they had undertaken extensive intelligence and surveillance work and that the search had occurred in the presence of a caretaker and two local government officials.

Given the presence of explosives and other devices, their work must not be limited to attending to the health concerns of the NPA, said Lt. Col. Marcelo Burgos Jr., the Army spokesman.

This is not the first time the military has targeted health workers. Enriquez says the arrest is linked to a larger operation at stake for the government – its counterinsurgency initiative to eliminate armed revolutionary movements. Known as Operation Freedom Watch, the previous administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has committed the military to a 2010 deadline to eliminate communist insurgency in the country.

Karapatan documents that the crackdown has resulted in 1,206 extrajudicial killings, 205 people disappeared, and many more subjected to torture.

A habeas corpus petition was filed but dismissed by the Court of Appeals, which ruled that it could not release the detainees under the presumption of an illegal detention because they had been charged with a criminal offence in the local court.

The Free the 43 campaign, which calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the Morong 43, has been taking its message to the international stage, where Enriquez and the husband of one of the prisoners brought the case to the attention of the U.N. Human Rights Council last June.

Enriquez also helped launch a campaign at this year’s CIVICUS World Assembly, which took place from Aug. 20-23, a platform where civil society organisations can build partnerships to solve global issues and address human rights abuses.

“We are partners in a project at CIVICUS called the Early Warning system, which acts as an urgent alert to sound out a situation in our country and enables civil society organisations across the world to respond to the threats against civil society,” Enriquez told IPS. “We would like to pressure CIVICUS to do more. We also hope that the new president, [Benigno] ‘Noynoy’ Aquino, will respond to increased pressure from our international supporters.”

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