By Niña Calleja, Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines— As of 11 p.m Friday night, all 23 women detainees held in Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan had been released to the cheers and hugs of relatives waiting for hours for them.
The women walked out of detention with raised fists. They had been held for 10 months and seven days.
The release was expected to continue through the night.
“[The release orders] mean that our clients have won in fighting for the dropping of the trumped-up charges against them. This is their victory and of their countless supporters,” said lawyer Jules Matibag.
Detained since February for alleged membership in the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the health workers were ordered freed after the regional and municipal trial courts of Morong dismissed the charges against them late Friday afternoon.
The charges—illegal possession of firearms and explosives and violation of the election gun ban—were withdrawn by the Department of Justice early this week on President Aquino’s behest on December 10.
The detainees’ kin erupted in cheers at around 4:30 p.m. when a lawyer walked out of the building holding copies of the decisions issued by Judge Gina Cenit-Escoto of Morong RTC Branch 78 and MTC Judge Rodrigo Posadas.
“My tears come from overwhelming joy. Finally, the world knows that my husband is innocent,” Evelyn Montes, wife of surgeon Alexis Montes, tearfully told reporters. “He is the most beautiful gift we have received this Christmas.”
The health workers were arrested on February 6 in a military-police operation at a farmhouse in Morong, Rizal, where they were holding a workshop in community health service.
They were accused of being NPA rebels training to make explosives—a charge they have denied. They also said the firearms and explosives purportedly seized from them were planted by the raiders.
Order covers all
The courts directed the jail warden at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City and the director general of Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal, to release all the accused from custody unless they were being detained for other lawful causes.
In her order, Judge Escoto also denied for lack of merit all petitions submitted to her court by Anad Representative Pastor Alcover seeking a stop to the withdrawal of criminal information against the Morong 43.
The release orders were faxed to the Metro Manila District Jail in Camp Bagong Diwa where 35 of the 43 were detained.
Two of the 23 women detainees, both new nursing mothers, were being held at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila.
Five who had purportedly admitted to being NPA rebels were being held at a detention facility in Camp Capinpin.
Another was confined at the Pateros-Taguig District Hospital for treatment of diabetes.
Matibag said the court orders guaranteed the freedom of all 43 detainees.
“The five in Camp Capinpin are included in the release orders and they should be immediately released to their families by their military custodians,” he said.
As to statements that some of the detainees had outstanding arrest warrants, Matibag said the government had yet to present such documents.
“Without any authenticated warrant of arrest issued by another court, all of the 43 should be released immediately,” he said.
Happy day but …
The left-wing group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) thanked President Aquino for paving the way for the release of the Morong 43.
“We thank the Aquino government, and hopefully it will heed calls for the release of all political prisoners, which is good for human rights and the peace process,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said in an interview.
“This is a happy day for all of us. A week after President Aquino gave the order to withdraw the case, the Morong courts have issued the release order. We are happy for the Morong 43 and their families. May they enjoy the holiday season together,” Reyes said.
But according to a list given to reporters by the Department of Justice’s Public Information Office (DOJ-PIO), detainee Eulogio Castillo is the subject of seven arrest warrants, including five for separate murder cases in Mamburao, Occidental Mindoro.
Castillo is also charged with usurpation of authority in Batangas City and violation of Batas Pambansa 22 (the anti-bouncing checks law) in Manila.
DOJ-PIO chief Alex Lactao said a total of five detainees might have to stay in detention.
“Under the law, one cannot be put in jail without a lawful cause. In this case, five of the 43 health workers were ordered arrested by the courts so they should still be detained,” Lactao told reporters.
The other detainees with arrest warrants were Edwin Bustamante, who was charged with rape; Aldrin Garcia, a drug-related case; Antonio de Dios, violation of BP 22; and Mario delos Santos, separate cases of murder and illegal detention.
Another detainee, Ramon dela Cruz, was also charged with violation of BP 22, but the case was dismissed on April 9, 1999.
In an earlier interview, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said at least two of the arrested health workers would have to stay in jail because the courts had issued warrants for their arrest.
The detainees’ kin started arriving at Camp Bagong Diwa shortly after news of the release order broke.
Among those who kept vigil early on were University of the Philippines fine arts professor Neil Doloricon, whose wife Angela is among the Morong 43, and Ofelia Balleta, who was waiting for her daughter Jane.
Balleta said she had been anticipating Jane’s release since last week. She said she began to pack her daughter’s belongings and bedding used in detention on Wednesday.
“I’m so happy I want to cry. I want to jump, but I’m too old for it,” Balleta told reporters.
Jane’s four-year-old daughter had wished that her mother would be home for Christmas. “She has a Christmas party today and she wanted her mother to be with her,” Balleta said.
But Colonel Antonio Parlade Jr., the spokesperson of the Army, could not resist taking a potshot at the Morong 43.
Parlade said the Armed Forces would abide by President Aquino’s decision to withdraw the charges against the 43.
“Let us just make sure that next time, the NPA will not be able to use more explosives in killing civilians, just like what happened to the ‘Samar 11,’” he said.
Parlade was referring to the 10 soldiers and a nine-year-old boy who were killed in a rebel ambush in Northern Samar two days before the start of a holiday ceasefire between government troops and the NPA.
He added: “Let us not allow more training on the use of explosives by ‘health workers’ in the future. Next time we see them do these in plain view, even civilians can arrest them without a warrant. They just have to turn them over to the proper authorities.”
Parlade, however, said the military respected the decision of the courts to order the release of the Morong 43.
“The courts know best. [But] we feel no remorse,” he said. With reports from Marlon Ramos and Dona Z. Pazzibugan (12/18/2010)