Health Workers visit the Morong 43

19 Aug 2010

Last May 2009, intal partners Advocates for Community Health, Council for Health and Development (CHD) and Gabriela conducted a training cum workshop for community health workers (CHWs) to enhance their skills in documenting their herbal medicine practice. Two participants were conspicuously absent during the follow up training on herbal medicine documentation ---medical doctor Merry Mia-Clamor and midwife Teresa “Tere” Quinawayan. 

Doc Merry played a major role in the preparation and organizing of last year's activity, while Tere was a volunteer to help in the logistics of the training. Every one was looking forward to see each other again after a year. Despite the busy schedules of the CHWs, the follow up training finally pushed through on July 13, 2010. Most participants from the previous training came. Doc Merry and Tere, however, were not able to make it because they were both in jail.
Doc Merry and Tere were among the 43 health workers arrested in Morong, Rizal while undergoing a First Respondents' Training on February 6, 2010. A 300-strong battalion of soldiers and policemen raided the training area using a defective search warrant. They were handcuffed and blindfolded and brought to Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal. After the raid and arrests, the military presented to the media some firearms and ingredients for bomb-making as evidence against the health workers. Cases of illegal possession of firearms and illegal possession of explosives, a non-bailable offense, were filed against them. 
Despite the questionable circumstances of their arrest, they are still in detention. Their ordeal hogged the front pages of the newspapers in the last months of the Arroyo regime. Their group was collectively called “Morong 43,” named after the town where they were arrested.
Because Doc Merry and Tere could not attend the training, the representatives of the partners proposed to bring the participants of the training to them. The staff of CHD arranged and prepared the necessary letters and permit for the visit. They also oriented the group about the updates regarding the case.    

Visit to Camp Bagong Diwa Detention Center

On Friday afternoon, July 16, our group traveled all the way from Quezon City to Camp Bagong Diwa in the southern part of the metropolis. We brought some food to share with them during the program. Prior to our visit, we were already advised that the jail guards are strict and would not allow mobile phones and cameras inside the facility. We went first inside the women's detention building and would be visiting the men afterwards. There are 23 female and 15 male health workers detained in Camp Bagong Diwa. 

Serving the people and yet being persecuted

When we arrived inside the facility, the detained female health workers were entertaining their foreign visitors from the United Church of Christ. Doc Merry and Tere were surprised when they saw us approaching the visitor's area of the building. Tears welled in the eyes of the CHWs as they embraced Doc Merry and Tere. 
The detained health workers welcomed our group with a short program. They referred to our group as “the health workers who were able to graduate.” Their training was illegally raided two days before its completion. Every one laughed at the bitter joke. A participant from Negros, was not able to introduce herself to other CHWs as she was already overwhelmed by her emotions. 
After the brief introduction, Doc Merry was asked to briefly narrate their ordeal since the day they were arrested. Doc Merry said they did not know what crime they committed until their inquest which was held on the third day of their detention. Their blindfolds were not removed for more than 36 hours while they were being interrogated continuously. They were not allowed to sleep. During the interrogation, they were asked to admit that they were rebels. They were told that the others had already recanted. Some of them heard gunshots outside their cells. They feared for their lives especially the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao was still fresh in their memory at that time. Despite their pleas to see their legal counsels, they were held incommunicado for six days. They were not allowed to see any one not even their immediate families.
Only after the court order that they were allowed to see their counsels and their loved ones. Despite seeing their lawyers, they still felt wary. Five of their colleagues were separated from them while they were asleep at night. The prosecution is now using the five as state witnesses to prove that the 43 health workers are indeed rebels. Doc Merry said that they understood the five who “recanted” because she believes that they were threatened and heavily tortured. After long negotiations and appeal, the 38 health workers were transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa on May 1. The military refused to turn over the five they have taken away from the group. After the transfer, the 38 health workers somehow felt relieved of their fear from being taken away.
After the sharing of Doc Merry, our group was asked to give some solidarity messages. Some CHWs were not able to contain their agitation and ignored the presence of jail guards as they gave fiery messages of support for the detained health workers. The health workers lamented the fact that they are serving the people and yet they are the ones being persecuted by the government. They also decried the government's disregard of the health sector.
We had to cut the program short so we can still have time to visit the men. Before we left, the women detainees sang a progressive song about women who are struggling against patriarchy and oppression. The visiting CHWs also bought the beaded bracelets the 23 women detainees made. 

“What inspires them, is the unfailing support of the people's organizations”

We then proceeded to the adjacent maximum risk detention building where the men were detained. It is more difficult to visit them. The jail guards were controlling the number of visitors. We were strip searched before we were allowed to go inside the premises. It also took 5-minutes for a jail guard to inspect the food we were bringing in. Because of the delays, we were only allowed to stay inside for 15 minutes, barely enough to introduce ourselves to the detained health workers we were visiting. Unlike the women's building, the men's building does not have a receiving area. We were allowed inside their prison cells on the fourth floor of the facility. 
Franco Romeroso, one of the detained health workers, deplored the fact that they were treated like criminals. They share the building with some notorious syndicate members, suspected terrorists and other high profile suspects being tried for high crimes. What inspires them, however, is the unfailing support of the people's organizations and other individuals who believe their innocence. On behalf of the group, he expressed their group's gratitude to us for visiting and supporting their cause. For our part, Nanay Elma Deanon of Gabriela pledged our all out support for them until they are released. The jail guards sounded the alarm to end the visitation hours that cut our visit short.  

Basic health training inside the detention center

Their being health workers did not stop while they are in prison. Because of poor facilities and ventilation, many inmates are getting sick. Because of their reputation as health workers, the sick inmates consult them when they are sick. To make use of their idle time inside the detention centers, they are giving basic health training to their inmates who lack medical attention. 
As we leave the detention center, the CHWs brought with them the stories shared by their fellow health workers who are being persecuted because they are serving the people. Despite their fear that they might end up like the Morong 43, they expressed their commitment to serve their communities. They firmly believe that what they are struggling for is right and just.

The fate of the 43 health workers remains unclear

A week after our visit, one of the two pregnant health workers gave birth at Philippine General Hospital. The court ordered her to return to detention which means she will be separated to her new born child. The counsels of the Morong 43, along with the support group are urging the court to let Judilyn Oliveros stay with her newborn child.  Secretary of Justice Lelia de Lima, who was previously the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, directed the prosecutor assigned to the Morong 43 case to drop his objections against Oliveros' appeal. 
On the other hand, the Court of Appeals where the counsels lodged the petition for the writ of amparo used a Martial Law-era doctrine to dismiss the appeal of the counsels of the Morong 43 to throw out the cases because the circumstances of their arrests are illegal. Two months into the new administration, the fate of the 43 health workers remains unclear. Every minute they spend in detention is a minute of injustice not only for them, but for all the people they are serving.
On August 10, the CHD held its 10th General Assembly of CHWs. They invited Atty. Edre Olalia, one of the lawyers of the Morong 43, to give updates on the case. Atty. Olalia said that we should not lose patience and should instead persevere in campaigning for their immediate release. He pointed out that despite the change in the administration, the laws and the judiciary that interprets the laws remain repressive and reactionary. For Atty. Olalia, the job of people's lawyers like him is to push the boundaries and to make the space where they can struggle bigger. He stressed the importance of the support to the campaign of international solidarity groups and institutions. He cited international community's clamor to stop political or extra-judicial killings of activists  in 2006 resulted to the dwindling of the number of killings. For Atty Olalia, it is still the people's movement that can influence those in power to side with the people, and with the Morong 43.

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