Dubious Arrests in the Philippines

The conservative Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has broken its silence on the arrest and detention of 43 Filipino health workers accused by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) of being New People's Army leaders, members, bomb-making experts, communist doctors or fake medical practitioners.

The charges have been branded as dubious by a wide range of organizations besides the church, and many political observers believe the arrests, made on Feb. 6 at a rest house in Morong, Rizal, are designed to whip up pro-government sentiment in advance of the May 10 election. In early March, communist guerrillas killed 11 soldiers in an ambush of a platoon patrolling in a remote village on the island of Mindoro 140 km south of Luzon. (Seven soldiers were wounded.) Some political observers branded the incident as suspicious, theorizing that the army's new-found aggressiveness in attacking a base they had let lie for a long period was an attempt to drum up anticommunist hysteria, but one that backfired.

In a statement Thursday, CBCP president Nereo P. Odchimar D.D., said that the bishops believe the case of the Morong 43 "represents [a] serious threat to the civil liberties of the Filipino people."

Odchimar said that the bishop's conference "follows with grave concern the shifting accusations of the military against the health workers, the conflicting positions of government authorities on the legitimacy of the arrest and detention, and the seeming lack of regard of the AFP for human rights and the rule of law."

Odchimar said he was concerned that community work by the church would be adversely affected by the Philippine government's treatment of the health workers:

"Most of the church's development programs and ministries are community-based," he said. "Our clergy and laity work in rural areas and empower far-flung communities. Now we could not help but fear that one day our efforts to help the poor and the marginalized will be perceived as threats, and that we may also be branded as insurgents."

The bishops' statement comes on the heels of a propaganda offensive by the Philippines government which recently summoned members of the diplomatic corps in Manila to "explain" to them the side of the military. In the briefing for diplomats, Defense Sec. Norberto Gonzales, a rabid anti-communist, allegedly claimed that the Morong 43 were "fake" health workers.

Local and international organizations of health professionals and human rights advocates however have backed the Morong 43 and have castigated the government for what they charge is their illegal arrest and detention, as well as other violations of due process and other fundamental rights. Big and influential American unions including the National Nurses United and the Service Employees International Union and the World Council of Churches have thrown in their support for the detainees.

The arrest and detention of the Morong 43 has been criticized as a product of the policy of the AFP and the Philippine government to include individuals merely suspected of being communist in its list of enemies to be arrested, detained or "neutralized" in the course of its running war with the NPA. This has been confirmed by United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston and a host of local and international human rights groups which have called for an end to such wrong-headed policy.

The plight of the Morong 43 proves President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has authorized the AFP to keep the policy, no matter if it violates Philippine and international law. Nor is this the first time. Arroyo's policy soaked much of the Philippines in blood between 2001and 2007 in a dirty war that is believed to have claimed nearly 800 lives of leftists who were doing nothing more than involving themselves in political activity.

In a report that was cited for Excellence in Human Rights Journalism by the Society of Publishers in Asia, Asia Sentinel co-founder A. Lin Neumann reported in 2007 that human rights groups believed Arroyo had crossed the line with an anti-left campaign that amounted to outright murder. The report quoted Amnesty International as saying 51 leftist leaders were assassinated in the first half of 2006 in the first half of 2006 alone.

Arroyo insisted that she was doing everything possible to investigate extra judicial killing, Neumann's report said. But "the campaign of assassinations seemed to shift into a higher gear in February after leftist political parties were accused of allying themselves with military rebels planning to overthrow Arroyo's government."

Tonyo Cruz blogs for the Asian Correspondent, which can be found at www.asiancorrespondent.com.