Canadians visit Morong 43
Nine Canadians, three others from the UK and Australia, and members of Manila based groups heard first-hand from the Morong 43 their story and feelings about the day their training seminar was raided on Feb. 6, their illegal detention since then in Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal and their transfer to Camp Bagong Diwa, the Metro Manila District Jail. The foreigners met and spoke with 38 of the illegally detained health care workers on May 18 in the Manila jail.
Detainee Dr. Alexis Montes described their ordeal to the foreigners in the concrete hallway outside the male part of the prison as other prisoners looked on from behind bars or from the courtyard below. On Feb. 6, they were conducting a seminar on advanced trauma care because of the recent natural disasters, which included 38 trainees and 5 trainers. They were raided by state troops who Montes said planted the firearms allegedly found at the scene, later drawing lots for the owners of the three firearms. The troops claim the Morong 43 are members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA).
During detainment at Camp Capinpin, they were all psychologically tortured. Montes described being blindfolded for days, handcuffed, placed in solitary confinement for weeks, and having what he assumed were electrodes placed on his head as he felt his muscles twitching involuntarily. While going to the washroom they were blindfolded while guards held their organs, which is “why the women claimed sexual abuse.”
In talking to the visitors, community health worker Jacqueline Gonzales spoke with tears in her eyes, “It is too painful for me to talk about what we went through.”
“It’s better that they’re in this prison than where they were before, where they were being tortured” said Prof. Valerie Raoul from UBC. The women shared they were happy to be moved because of the longer visiting hours to see their family and loved ones at the prison.
Five of the 43 originally detained remain in Camp Capinpin. Montes claimed they “were convinced by the military by every means- pressure, harassment, torture, even offer of property to their families- to say that they are NPA.” Some of the five would like to retract their statements, but military pressure is continuing to restrain them.
“All of us want a speedy and fair trial because we know that we are innocent.” Their habeas corpus case was dismissed on the basis of a precedent set during Martial Law, which is currently under appeal to the Supreme Court.
Montes told the visitors he is “optimistic about the new administration because he heard that President-Elect Aquino will try to help us. But we heard that Aquino will not take the oath [of office] with the new Chief of the Supreme Court. It’s unfortunate that we are the ones affected.” Current Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recently appointed the new Chief against constitutional laws forbidding appointments shortly before leaving office.
Head of the local facilitators for the visit, Fr. Dionito Cabillas, stated, “We are really working for their immediate release and are expecting that within the first 100 days of the new administration that it will be a priority for the political prisoners to be released. We are thankful to our foreign friends for giving their time and helping to spread their stories, cries for justice, and their demand for freedom.”
Dr. Montes said, “We have heard word that our plight has caught international attention.” The detainees said the visit boosted their morale and gave a renewed sense of hope. Sylvia Gonzalez, stated “You have really made us happy.”
The foreigners plan to talk about the visit to Filipinos, academe and media in their countries, such as the BBC. They were part of the People’s International Observers’ Mission, a delegation of 86 foreigners observing the May 10 National Elections. Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), Pagbabago!, Society of Ex-Detainees against Detention and for Amnesty (SELDA), and others arranged the visit.
In a meeting with Conseiller James R. Trottier at the Canadian Embassy, the delegates questioned what actions are to be taken for the Morong 43. Trottier said “we will be in very early contact” with the new administration concerning their freedom and further reconciliations regarding political prisoners.
The foreigners were moved to tears when the female detainees shared their feelings about their detainment and appreciation for the support and messages of solidarity expressed by the foreigners.
Carolyn Ann Crabtree from the Solidarity Notes Labour Choir in BC said, “I was very moved by the women, the fact that they could cry with us, I think it helps. I felt even sadder with the men because their conditions seemed more harsh.”
Before climbing the steel staircase to a concrete hallway lined with cells on the top floor of the jail to speak with the male detainees, the foreigners followed the entry protocols, which included a strip search.
Prof. Valerie Raoul from the University of British Columbia stated after, “It’s very different to read about something than to see the circumstances that they’re living in.”
Rathika Sitsabaiesan, candidate for federal Member of Parliament spoke about being able to “put faces to the number 43.” When meeting the women, she “observed a lot of friendly and positive people… It’s appalling that a lot of volunteer health care workers, midwives, and doctors are being held for wanting to be health care providers for… their small rural communities.” Elizabeth Dollaga from the United Church in BC reiterated, “They are providing a service that the government is supposed to.”
Dollaga continued, “What hits me most in meeting them is their genuine love for the people that they are serving.” Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor told the visitors, “It’s not that we’re here that we worry for. We worry for the people who are waiting for us.” Community health worker Lydia “Mama Del” Ayo Obera bravely expressed, “What we are going through now is nothing compared to the severe suffering that they are experiencing.”
Montes was quick to convey other healthcare workers were disappeared and many other prisoners at Camp Bagong Diwa do not know the reasons for their arrest. He claimed they wait an average of six years before they are released awaiting trials and sentencing because they cannot afford a private lawyer.
Prof. Pauline Eadie of the University of Nottingham, UK, exclaimed, “Six years! That’s six years of a young girl’s life! And what about the two girls that are pregnant?” referring to two of the female detainees. Rev. Bert Dellosa of the United Church in Australia declared, “Justice delayed is justice denied. It’s really frustrating for me to see people who have families acting on concerns for their community, pulled out and separated from their loved ones. I find that unjustifiable.”
Another prisoner and former elementary school teacher who spoke with the foreigners, Abdullah Yousop, stated he was arrested because of a US bounty on suspect of being part of the Abu Sayyaf. He has been in prison for nine years and is awaiting completion of his trial. He claimed, “98 percent of the prisoners here have the same story, arrested with no legality as just suspects under the Oplan Bantay Laya policy.”