By Émilie Fontaine, Laura Cliche and Emily Misola Richard
The maximum security jail where the health workers are being held is depressing and dirty, especially on a boiling, suffocating day with temperatures rising to 40 degrees. Our international delegation includes participants from Canada, the US, and Australia. After waiting for more than an hour beneath a leaden sky at the entrance to the prison compound, we were allowed to enter after a strict inspection including a strip-search.
The first shock was to see the age of the prisoners, most of who are between 18 and 25. Two of the women are pregnant. We came to offer solidarity and support to the prisoners, but could not restrain our tears on seeing these young women and men so unjustly deprived of their liberty.
They are all health workers and include two doctors, a nurse and a mid-wife as well as trainees and volunteer support workers. They were all participating in a weekend training session devoted to emergency care when they were arrested on February 6, 2010.
Following a typhoon in September 2009 that killed more than 300 people in the capital, Manila, many doctors were critical of the government’s slow response in providing emergency medical treatment to its citizens. Public health workers joined together to express their indignation and to organize themselves in order to be able to offer better services when such a catastrophe occurs. They never suspected that they risked being arrested and tortured for accepting their responsibility to their fellow citizens.
Besides being illegal according to both Filipino and international law, their arrest was carried out in a brutal fashion that still leaves its marks on their bodies. Doctor Mendes, an experienced surgeon who was arrested along with the others, described the arrest as humiliating and said that for three months they were confined in a military camp where they were tortured, sexually harassed, and interrogated in the middle of the night.
One man, Jigs Clamor, visibly distressed by his wife’s imprisonment, explained that the techniques used by the army resemble those of the CIA: “Electrodes or a crown of thorns were placed on their heads, which produce a sense of being dazed, and constant pain. When we complained about this treatment of our loved ones, we were told that this is standard procedure.”
One young detainee, just turned 18, told us in a trembling voice about the torture she experienced: “They would come to get me in the middle of the night , dragging me out of the cell and from the arms of my companions, to interrogate me for hours at a time. Each time another woman was taken out we were terrorized, thinking of the punishment the soldiers would inflict on her.”
Four months after their arrest, no official charges have been laid against the Morong 43, which makes their detention illegal according to Filipino law. Local human rights groups told us this is a common way to harass and silence anyone who is critical of the government.
According to local allies of Amnesty International, more than 1,100 activists have been killed or disappeared over the last ten years. The International Federation of Journalists has declared the Philippines to be the most dangerous place on earth for journalists, ahead of Iraq and Afghanistan where wars are being waged. The UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, has categorically condemned the repressive practices of the Philippine authorities and military, who go unpunished for attacking those working for civil rights.
Jigs Clamor, whose wife, a doctor, is still in jail, held their four-year-old son in his arms as he told us, “The only thing we want is that these health workers be released, so that they can continue their work for the underprivileged, and we are trying by every means available to get the government to listen to us.”
In the face of such severe repression, the international community must pass on their cries for justice and insist that the political authorities in the Philippines conform to international law.
Today we are calling on the Canadian government to urge the newly-elected Filipino government, which will take over at the end of June 2010, to put an end to this reign of violence and terror. This is particularly urgent since there have been six new victims of extrajudicial killings since election day: farmers Julito Etang and Borromeo Cabilis, labour leader Edward Panganiban, human rights worker Benjamin Bayles, and radio journalists Desiderio Camangyan and Joselito Agustin.
We demand the immediate, unconditional release of the Morong 43 healthworkers!
We demand the liberation of all political prisoners in the Philippines!
We demand the immediate application of the recommendations by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston!
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The three authors are human rights activists who were in the Philippines at the time of the elections (7-18 May, 2010) as delegates from Quebec to the non-governmental People’s International Observers Mission (PIOM).
Emilie Fontaine is a political advisor to Bloc québécois MP Serge Ménard (Marc-Aurèle Fortin), and has a degree in Political Communications from the University of Montreal.
Laura Cliche is a Master’s level graduate student in Political Science at the University of Montreal, working on human rights issues in the Philippines.
Emily Misola Richard is studying International Law at the University of Québec in Montréal (UQAM) and currently completing an internship in Manila with the National Union of Filipino Lawyers.
The Canadian campaign to “Free the Morong 43 Health Workers” was inspired by their meeting with political prisoners and their families during the PIOM.