Thursday, May 20, 2010

Foreigners cry with ‘Morong 43’ in jail visit

By Dyan Bandayrel Ruiz
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—There was not a dry eye when foreigners and locals met on Tuesday with some members of the “Morong 43” detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.

Twelve foreigners and members of Manila-based groups gathered around a table in the visiting area with 23 women detainees. Later, they spoke with the male detainees in the hallway outside their cells.

The visitors brought messages of solidarity and were moved to tears as the women talked about their feelings and experiences in detention.

The women also said they were happy to have been moved to Camp Bagong Diwa from Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal, because of the longer visiting hours they were allowed with their loved ones.

“I was very moved by the women,” said Carolyn Ann Crabtree of Solidarity Notes Labour Choir in Canada. “The fact that they could cry with us—I think it helped. I felt even sadder with the men because their conditions seemed more harsh.”

Upon entering the part of the prison where the male detainees are held, the visitors followed the entry protocols, including a strip search.

They then climbed a steel staircase to a concrete hallway lined with cells on the top floor of the prison.

Other male prisoners looked on from behind bars or from the courtyard below as the visitors met and spoke with the detainees and their visiting relatives.

“It’s very different to read about something [and then] to see the circumstances that they’re living in,” noted Prof. Valerie Raoul of the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Military pressure

The Morong 43, composed of two doctors, a nurse and other health workers, were arrested by state troops on Feb. 6 in a raid on a training seminar in Morong, Rizal. Suspected of being members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), they were taken to and held at Camp Capinpin.

Five of the 43 remain there, according to detainee Dr. Alexis Montes.

He told the visitors that the five had been “convinced by the military by every means—pressure, harassment, torture, even an offer of property to their families—to say that they are NPA.”

Some of the five want to recant their statements but further military pressure prevents them from doing so, according to Montes.

“All of us want a speedy and fair trial because we know that we are innocent,” he said.

Montes said he was “optimistic” about the incoming administration because he had heard that presumptive president-elect Benigno Aquino III would “try to help us.”

Later in an interview, Fr. Dionito Cabillas, the head of the local facilitators of the visit with the detainees, said: “We are really working for their immediate release and are expecting that within the first 100 days of the new administration, 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 the detainees’ stories, cries for justice, and demand for freedom.”

Morale-booster

Montes said he and the other detainees had heard that their case was gaining international attention.

“We are fortunate that this has happened,” he said, adding that the visit from the foreigners “boosted our morale.”

The other detainees said the visit had given them a renewed sense of hope.

“You have really made us happy,” Sylvia Gonzalez told the visitors.

Rathika Sitsabaiesan, a candidate for federal membership in Canada’s Parliament, later talked about being able to “put faces to the number 43.”

She said that in meeting the women detainees, 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,” she said.

Elizabeth Dollaga from the United Church of Canada said what struck her in meeting the detainees was “their genuine love for the people they are serving.”

“It’s not our being here that we worry about. We worry about the people who are waiting for us,” she quoted detainee Dr. Merry Mia-Clamor as saying.

Dollaga also expressed admiration for health worker Lydia “Mama Del” Ayo Obera, who said what they were going through in detention was “nothing compared to the severe suffering that our community is experiencing.”

“The community health workers are providing a service that the government is supposed to be providing,” Dollaga said.

Material for BBC

The foreigners said they planned to discuss the plight of the Morong 43 with Filipinos and with the academe and the media, such as BBC, in their respective countries.

They are part of the People’s International Observers’ Mission, a delegation of 86 foreigners that monitored the May 10 elections.

Local organizations including Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Pagbabago! and the Society of Ex-Detainees against Detention and for Amnesty arranged the visit.

“It is too painful for me to talk about what we went through,” community health worker Jacqueline Gonzales told the visitors, her eyes welling with tears.

Montes said other health care workers had disappeared, and that many other prisoners at Camp Bagong Diwa did not know why they were arrested.

Long wait

He told the visitors that detainees waited an average of six years behind bars awaiting trial and sentencing before being released because they could not afford a private lawyer.

Said Rev. Bert Dellosa of the United Church in Australia: “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,” he added.

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