MANILA, Philippines?Frustrated by the government?s seeming indifference to their plight, the health workers collectively known as ?Morong 43? on Friday embarked on a hunger strike to demand their freedom and protest their continued detention.
The health workers, whom police and military agents arrested on February 6 on suspicion of being communist rebels, began the hunger strike at 6 a.m. at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City, where they are being held.
?This is the only course of action left us to end our continued illegal detention, there being no clear action by the government for our unconditional release,? the Morong 43 said in a statement.
They said their action was intended to get President Aquino to order the withdrawal of the case filed against them so that they could be freed immediately, and timed for Human Rights Week in order to highlight their plight as well as their call for their freedom and that of other political prisoners.
The health workers, along with their families and sympathizers, say that when they were arrested in a farm resort in Morong, Rizal, they were holding training sessions on how to provide health care to poor communities.
The military insists that those arrested were communist rebels holding a seminar on how to make explosives.
Of the 43 arrested, 36 are detained at the police jail in Camp Bagong Diwa.
Two?Carina ?Judilyn? Oliveros and Mercy Castro?are at the Philippine General Hospital nursing their newborns. They are not joining the hunger strike but are backing it.
Five are staying in the Army detachment in Tanay, Rizal, after purportedly denouncing ties with the communist New People?s Army.
Major concern for Palace
At a news briefing in Malacañang, Mr. Aquino?s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said the health workers? hunger strike was ?a major concern.?
?I can say that it comes as a surprise, but we would like to assure the Morong 43 and their families that something is being done to rectify the situation,? Valte said, adding that she was not at liberty to discuss details.
She also said the President had acknowledged that something was wrong with the way the military served the arrest warrant on the group during the last months of the Arroyo administration.
Valte said mounting a hunger strike was within the discretion of the health workers and their families.
?(But) we are doing something to remedy the situation and rectify the mistake that was done. I would like to tell them that they have the government?s attention, [that] there is an adequate review being done on their case,? she said.
Told of the Morong 43?s call for the withdrawal of the criminal information against them, Valte said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had stated that the case was under study.
?Let?s afford her the time to study it even more on what should be done,? Valte said.
It?s up to court
But the Armed Forces, speaking through Brigadier General Jose Mabanta Jr., belittled the hunger strike.
?The case is beyond our reach now. The [AFP] has done its best and the ball is now in the hands of the [court] authorities,? Mabanta said.
?It?s up to the [court] authorities to decide on the merits of the case,? he said. ?Remember that the justice system revolves around pieces of evidence. So [the hunger strike] may have nil impact on the outcome of the case.?
Mabanta said, however, that the detainees were free to undertake any measure they deemed fit.
He said the military also wanted the case of illegal possession of firearms and explosives filed in the Regional Trial Court Branch 78 of Morong resolved as soon as possible.
?We understand [their] stressful situation. That?s their own call. We?re in a democratic and free society so it?s entirely up to them if they want to do this,? Mabanta said.
?[We in the AFP] would also like to ask them to have faith in the system. The sooner this [case] is settled, the better for everyone,? he said.
From its original insistence that the arrest of the Morong 43 was aboveboard, the military has lately softened its stand and said it would abide by the court?s decision on the case.
?We look at this experience as a learning process. It will further strengthen our resolve to do better next time in the conduct of our operations,? Mabanta said.
De Lima submitted on Friday to the President another recommendation on the Morong 43 case.
She told reporters that her legal opinion was part of the government?s attempt ?to hopefully find closure to this matter.?
?We are continuing to find means to address this matter,? she said.
De Lima declined to reveal the contents of her previous recommendation, but said all efforts to free the Morong 43 should be ?within the bounds of law and the legal processes.?
She said that while Mr. Aquino acknowledged the fact that the health workers? arrest was ?defective,? she respected his decision to let the court decide on their fate.
Asked if the Department of Justice (DOJ) could withdraw the case against the health workers, she said: ?Yes. It?s possible. It?s always a possibility.?
Barristers? groups led by the National Union of People?s Lawyers (NUPL) and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) reiterated their call for the health workers? release.
In a resolution issued by its board of governors, the IBP called on the DOJ to drop the charges against the Morong 43 to pave the way for their release.
NUPL secretary general Edre Olalia said the Aquino administration should ?stop the populist mumbo jumbo and ... use its power to bring justice.?
?The issue of [the Morong 43?s] release is not a matter of favor but a matter of principle and justice. [The Aquino administration] must right a wrong that the previous administration has foisted,? Olalia said in a statement.
Olalia also said the President ?should not wash its hands of the issue and conveniently pass on the burden when he knows he can do something to effect the release from his end.?
The Morong 43 lamented that despite the DOJ review of their case and Mr. Aquino?s statements questioning the legitimacy of their arrest, they continue to be detained.
?The President himself has admitted that our arrest was based on a defective warrant and that ?evidence wrongly gotten cannot be used.? Yet despite these findings, there are no clear indications that the charges against us will be withdrawn anytime soon,? they said.
The detainees said they had been subjected to physical and psychological torture, including sleep deprivation and threats of bodily harm.
They said that they were prevented access to lawyers for several days, and that the purported evidence against them, including firearms and explosives, were planted.
?Our human rights continue to be violated. Every day in jail is an injustice to us,? they said.
The Morong 43 also said there was no lack of pleas from various groups, and ?even the international community,? for their freedom.
?Free my mother?
Five-year-old Diego Gabriel Clamor, whose mother, Dr. Merry Mia Clamor, is one of the Morong 43, dreams of becoming the country?s most powerful man.
?I want to be the president so I can free my mother and all others who were jailed for helping poor people,? Diego?s father, Roneo Clamor, quoted his son as saying.
It is the first time Diego and his 2-year-old brother will be spending Christmas away from their mother, Roneo Clamor told the Inquirer on Friday.
?It pains me to see how our sons are affected by this injustice. They are the reasons why my wife and I have to be stronger amid this trial,? he said.
Along with some 100 kin and supporters of the Morong 43, Roneo Clamor went to the DOJ office in Manila for the nth time to demand the release of their loved ones.
He said Mr. Aquino?s failure to swiftly act on De Lima?s recommendation ?clearly showed lack of political will to act against human rights abuses.?
?Which should determine what justice is? Is it the military or the DOJ? Is the President afraid of the military?? Roneo Clamor said, adding:
?What?s more frustrating is the fact that the President himself and his family were victims of state oppression. I?m sure he knows the grief and the anguish that families of political prisoners feel.? With a report from Norman Bordadora