Sunday, February 21, 2010

Health workers detained in the Philippines

Original Text
Margaret Harris Cheng
The Lancet

Human-rights groups are concerned for the welfare of 43 Filipino health workers who were arrested by government forces while attending a training seminar. Margaret Harris Cheng reports. Typhoon Ketsana, the massive storm that wreaked havoc in the Philippines, continues to have consequences. But for a group of 43 community health workers, nurses, and doctors now languishing in a military prison, the consequences were way beyond their worst nightmares.

The group was taking part in a week-long training seminar organised by the Community Medicine Foundation, to build first-responders capacity at provincial level, so the effects of disasters like Ketsana could be mitigated.

Participants had come from all parts of the Philippines to a farm in Rizal, east of Manila, owned by Melecia Velmonte, a leading infectious diseases specialist who regularly lends her farm to medical organisations for conferences, training sessions, and meetings.

But the Armed Forces of the Philippines, viewed the seminar as something entirely different. They insist that what was going on was a terrorist training camp where participants were being trained to make explosives. At first light on Feb 6 they swooped on the farm to achieve what they described as their biggest-ever mass arrest of insurgents.

“Around 6.15 am, 300 heavily armed elements of the military and police forced their way into the farm”, says a report released by the human rights Karapatan (whose deputy general secretary is married to one of the doctors arrested during the raid).

“At gunpoint, the military forced the caretaker to open the gates. Inside, the soldiers fanned out to different directions. They also kicked the main door to get into the building.”

“When Dr Velmonte and her son, Bob demanded for a search warrant, they were merely brushed aside by the military. All medical practitioners and health workers, were ordered to line up at the garage, frisked, and handcuffed…The male victims were then blindfolded with old shirts brought in by the soldiers and secured with packaging tape. All of the personal belongings of the victims were also taken by the military.”

While the medical workers waited outside, cuffed and blindfolded, wondering what would happen next, the soldiers searched their sleeping quarters. There they found, according to an official announcement made later that day, C4 (composition 4) explosives, a gun with seven bullets, and three hand grenades. One of the grenades was allegedly found under someone's pillow.

“Would you hide a grenade under your pillow?” asked Roneo Clamor, husband of one of the detainees, Mary Mia-Clamor, during a press conference held by relatives and friends to demand that the 43 individuals be freed immediately.

Their demands fell on deaf ears. The health workers remain locked up in a military camp in Rizal—the women all in one room, the men in smaller cells in ones and twos. Relatives who have been able to see them for short periods say they have been tortured, and subjected to lengthy interrogation, sleep deprivation, and, in some instances, sexual abuse.

Their military captors say the interrogations have yielded evidence that some were involved in attempts to abduct senior commanders involved in counter-insurgency operations. However, this has yet to be tested legally. The Philippines' supreme court issued a writ of habeas corpus commanding the military to produce the 43 in court on Feb 12, but they did not, citing a “lack of resources”. They eventually produced the health workers in court on Feb 15.

To outsiders the two versions—a disaster medicine training seminar and a terrorist training camp—are so far apart, the arrests seem absurd. But those familiar with the extrajudicial arrests, detentions, and killings often done in the name of counter-insurgency by a powerful, well funded military poorly controlled by the judiciary or the elected government, are not surprised.

Doctors who choose to become community health specialists and work with poor people in the provinces, are automatically considered leftists and targeted. “It's sending a really bad message—not only to the health sector…we already have problems with our health-care delivery and now doctors are frightened of going to the provinces”, said Gene Nisperos of the Health Alliance for Democracy.

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Justice for the 43!