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Military presents ‘Morong 43’ in court

By Dona Pazzibugan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:43:00 02/16/2010

Filed Under: Military, insurgency, Healthcare Providers, Crime and Law and Justice, Justice & Rights

MANILA, Philippines?The Court of Appeals Monday heard first-hand from a 62-year-old doctor the ordeal he and 42 other health workers underwent after they were arrested by the military 10 days ago in the middle of a training seminar in Morong, Rizal.

Dr. Alex Montes, who described himself as a volunteer instructor for community health workers, narrated before the appellate court?s special first division the ?psychological torture? he underwent.

Montes said he was subjected to prolonged and repeated interrogation while he was blindfolded and in handcuffs, was denied his right to see a lawyer and was held in solitary confinement.

The Army?s 2nd Infantry Division based in Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal, Monday finally complied with the Supreme Court?s order to produce the 43 health workers, including Montes and Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor, who were rounded up on Feb. 6 at a private rest house owned by Dr. Melecia Velmonte of Philippine General Hospital.

Montes said his interrogators repeatedly asked him if he knew a Tirso Alcantara, a commander of the New People?s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and if he was involved in antigovernment activities.

?I?m being held in solitary confinement,? he told the court.

?Every now and then in the past two days I would be taken out for 15 minutes for sunning. Visitations are limited and it?s very hard to get information from outside,? Montes added.

After keeping his composure during his narration, the gray-haired doctor was unable to answer the last question posed by his lawyer, Romeo Capulong, who wanted to know how his ordeal had affected him.

He blinked several times, rubbed his eyes and looked up. ?I have no?I?m retired,? he said, unable to speak further.

The special first division, chaired by Associate Justice Portia Alino-Hormachuelos with Associate Justices Normandy Pizarro and Francisco Acosta as members, allowed Montes to testify on the details of the arrest and how the military treated him and the other health workers.

After giving Col. Aurelio Baladad, the representative of the military at the habeas corpus hearing, a dressing down at the previous hearing, Pizarro on Monday counterchecked the military?s claim that it was able to produce all the 43 detainees.

He ordered the health workers to stand up so that the clerk of court could count them.

The government panel, led by Associate Solicitor General Renan Ramos, repeatedly protested Montes? testimony, insisting that the hearing was only meant to be an ?inquiry? into whether there was legal basis for the detention.

Defective

But the 13 defense lawyers led by Capulong argued that the appellate court should look at all ?the aspects and phases of detention,? including the ?defective? issuance of the arrest warrant.

Capulong said the defense lawyers were not able to talk to their clients until Thursday to get their statements.

Hormachuelos said the court allowed Montes? testimony because the hearing would not necessarily affect the merits of the criminal case at the Regional Trial Court in Morong, where the health workers were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

?The primary focus of this hearing is to determine the legality of their detention,? the justice said.

The detainees? lawyers also asked the appellate court to order their clients? transfer to the Philippine National Police headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City.

But the government lawyers opposed this, saying the Morong, Rizal court had already ordered the detention at Camp Capinpin.

Both sides were given until Wednesday to submit their evidence and statements.

Handcuffed to a soldier

The 43 health workers, 26 of whom were women, were inside the Court of Appeals auditorium each handcuffed to a military escort. The men were handcuffed to a male soldier while the women were handcuffed to a female soldier.

Before the hearing started, relatives were allowed to approach the detainees. One small girl stayed with her mother, who hugged her daughter with her left arm since her right wrist was handcuffed to her escort.

The women had white handkerchiefs around their wrists under the handcuffs. Among the men, one was spotted having a handkerchief under his handcuffs.

The handcuffs were removed shortly before the start of the hearing apparently after the defense lawyers complained that this violated the detainees? rights.

But when the women would go to the bathroom, they were escorted.

Jane Ballante, whom her mother claimed was molested, denied this to reporters Monday.

A certain Lt. Col. Zaragosa who said he was officer in charge of the detainees? security, made Ballante available to be interviewed by the media.

While one wrist was handcuffed to an escort, Ballante tried to shield her face from the reporters? phone cameras and was clearly uncomfortable.

No molestation

But Ballante denied the Inquirer report that quoted her mother, Ofelia Beltran-Ballante, as saying that her daughter was molested. ?Those arrested have different accounts. You can ask the others. But I was also pressured,? she said.

Asked if she was sexually harassed, she denied this. ?Generally, the treatment was OK. There were a few times that I was threatened,? she said.

Ballante?s mother told the Inquirer that her daughter whispered to her during her visit to the camp on Saturday that she and other detainees were blindfolded when brought to the toilet. ?There, soldiers touched their private parts,? Ofelia said Sunday.

Zaragosa said Ballante?s mother was either lying or was misquoted.

Mother?s understanding

Ofelia Monday night quoted Jane as telling her, ?I?m sorry Mama.? She said she understood why her daughter had recanted her statement.

Ofelia said she believed everything Jane had told her earlier. Jane ?never lied to me,? she added.

Sen. Pia Cayetano, who has filed a resolution calling for a Senate inquiry into the arrest, told reporters that none of the women detainees she spoke with last Thursday had complained of sexual harassment.

?But when a woman is in handcuffs and blindfolded that someone else has to remove your clothing isn?t that an invasion of privacy and dignity?? she said.

?My personal perception is despite the absence of lewd design, there may be a crossing of the line,? Cayetano added.

Montes said he did not even own a gun. ?In truth the last time I held a firearm was during ROTC and that was way way back.?

He said he was a volunteer instructor for the Council on Health and Development, training the community volunteers on basic life support. He said he was also meeting the participants for the first time.

At around 6 a.m. on Feb. 6 he said he just had coffee, which turned out to be his last meal for the next two days, when the soldiers arrived and ordered the seminar participants to get down.

Montes said their hands were kept in handcuffs on the back and were blindfolded for the next two days until they were presented to a state prosecutor.

?It was very humiliating. Even when peeing they would be the one to take your shorts off,? he said.

He said they were not told why they were arrested or where they were taken.

Montes said he was interrogated daily, with the soldiers taking turns asking him the same things about his background and family history. All the while he was in blindfold and handcuffed. With a report from Jerry Esplanada



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