By GILL BOEHRINGER
Forty three health professionals and community health workers were illegally arrested February 6 in a dawn raid by a swarm of Philippine Army and Police personnel. Incredibly, the arrest was trumpeted as a huge triumph in the counter-insurgency program which the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been obsessively trying to complete by the end of her term, which follows the May General Elections. The 43 were labeled as communist rebels, members of the New People’s Army, which continues to frustrate all efforts to defeat it once and for all. In fact, the NPA has been racking up stunning victories in recent months as they continue their hit and run strikes at military and police targets across many provinces of the archipelago.
The plight of the 43 calls for an examination of the jurisprudence of repression in the Philippines. For after five weeks of detention in an out of the way military camp, being subjected to on-going interrogation, threats and inducements, torture and, for some, solitary confinement, the Court of Appeals rejected their case for release brought by the writ of habeas corpus. They continue to languish in detention. It is military detention, not even police detention as should be the case given that they are being held on criminal charges, not for political offenses.
The relevant facts are simple enough. At 6 am on the morning of the February 6 a joint raiding party of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) entered property at Morong, Rizal Province belonging to Dr. Melicia Velmonte who is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Community Health Development Fund (COMMED). She is Professor Emeritus of the College of Medicine, University of the Philippines. The entry was not consented to. In fact she and others resisted the forced entry of the raiders who did not , initially, present their search warrant. Inside the compound, a noted Conference and Training Center, were 43 persons engaged in a week-long Community First Responders Training program, co-sponsored by two NGOs, COMMED and the Council for Health and Development (CHD). Amongst the 43 were 2 medical doctors, a registered nurse, 2 midwives, 2 health educators and 36 volunteer community health workers.
The AFP//NP had obtained a search warrant from the Regional Trial Court at Imus, Cavite Province, at least 100 kilometers away from Morong, which strongly suggests that they wanted a tame judge who would co-operate by not looking too closely at the request for a warrant, especially one which was unconstitutional on its face! The warrant was not specific as to the property to be searched (a fatal flaw in law); in addition the warrant was made out in the name of one Mario Condes, who neither lived at the Velmonte property nor was he there at the time, nor was he known to any of those present on the property. According to the story put out by the AFP/PNP, they had received information from a secret source indicating that Condes had been seen in public with firearms and constituted a danger to the public. There seems to have been a hint that Condes was an NPA, though precise details have not been forthcoming. It is clear that the search warrant was a fraud and was to be used as a cover for the raid on the Velmonte property.
During the raid the 43 were herded into one area while the raiders searched the rest of the compound. They claim to have discovered some weapons and some explosives. As a result, all 43 were arrested, bound and taken to Camp Capinpin in Rizal. For five days they were interrogated, some were placed in solitary confinement, some apparently tortured and harassed, threats were made to them and toward their family, and forms of inducement as well as intimidation were applied. They were told to confess to membership in the New People’s Army. Five of the 43 were separated from the others and apparently worked over physically and psychologically until they confessed to being NPAs. They have since told their relatives that they were coerced into making these false confessions.
In violation of their legal rights, none of the 43 were informed of the charges they were facing until they were charged on the 11th February, five days after their detention. Worse, they were denied access to legal counsel, a violation of their Constitutional rights. Not only were they refused legal counsel generally, they were illegally denied legal representation at the State Prosecutor’s Inquest. Further, the Inquest was entirely perfunctory, another illegality. And that failure to actually inquire into the manner by which the 43 had been detained and presented for an Inquest was disregarded by the reviewing Senior State Prosecutor who simply approved of the recommendation to lay charges against the 43. All of this was in violation of their constitutional rights under the post-Marcos 1987 Constitution.
A petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed February 9 by lawyers retained by friends and relatives of the 43. The Supreme Court directed that the 43 be brought for a hearing at the Court of Appeals on 12 February. But the AFP claimed it could not comply due to security concerns, suggesting that the NPA would try to free the detainees. They also claimed they needed more time to prepare for the hearing. On the day, they refused to present the 43. However, charges were laid with the Regional Trial Court on February 11 as part of a deliberate legal strategy to defeat the detainees case which was based on the many serious violations of their Constitutional and legislative rights,. The RTC then issued a committal order. The charges were: 1) illegal possession of firearms and explosives; 2) violation of Commission on Elections (Comelec) ban on firearms during election period. It was these charges which became the center of the judicial disagreement in the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals rebuked the AFP and directed them to present the detained persons on the 15th of February. This order was complied with, and the case was heard . But the 3 Justice bench could not come to the required unanimous decision, dividing 2-1 in favor of the detainees. Two more Justices were appointed to take part in a re-hearing of the matter. In view of the decision which went against the detainees, it might be thought that this was a clear case of Court-stacking. The Justices finally handed down their decision, on March 9.One might be forgiven for thinking this was an incredible delay-3 weeks- in which the ill-treatment and violation of rights continued. By a vote now of 3-2, the majority rejected the detainees petition, leaving them to continue to languish in the hands of the military.