In a country where university students have to run naked to protest tuition increases, where lawyers accuse each other of intellectual theft, where presidential appointees drink alcohol while a bus filled with Chinese tourists is being held hostage by a disgruntled police officer, where cases of HIV are on the rise and where the perpetrator of a cold-blooded massacre of 58 people has yet to be convicted, any piece of good news is welcome.
On International Human Rights Day, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III finally listened to the persistent calls of human rights workers and the families and friends of the group of 43 community health workers that have been illegally detained for more than nine months.
As I wrote on this same space last month, the health workers, collectively known as the Morong 43, were in a faraway resort in Morong, Rizal, in the eastern part of the Philippines for a training workshop.
Authorities arrested them on suspicion that they were communist rebels, sparking protests and consistent calls for their release. They have been detained in a military camp in Taguig in the southeastern part of Metropolitan Manila.
On Friday, Human Rights Day, President Aquino ordered the withdrawal of the information filed before the court which would pave the way for their eventual release.
‘We recognize that their right to due process was denied them. As a government that is committed to the rule of law and the rights of man, this cannot stand. Therefore, I have ordered the Department of Justice to withdraw the information filed before the court,’ Aquino said in a news article posted on gmanews.tv.
This, Aquino said, will in effect, ‘subject to court approval, free those among them who have no other standing warrants in other courts’.
The group may be back in the arms of their families as early as Monday, 13 December 2010.
Needless to say, the whole human rights community in the country is celebrating this news: ‘We salute the health workers and all political prisoners. The detainees’ hunger strike and the broad unity and support shown by the broad people’s movement and staunch rights advocates in the international community finally convinced President Aquino to take the necessary step to effect the release of the Morong 43. We consider their release as the fruit of the just struggle for human rights,’ said Karapatan Acting Secretary-General Jigs Clamor. Karapatan is an umbrella group of human rights organizations in the Philippines.
Clamor, however, said the struggle does not end here.
He said that political repression and state terror unleashed by the previous Arroyo regime continues under the Aquino government, with the US government’s full support, under a so-called new counter-insurgency strategy.
‘Trumped-up charges filed by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines against leaders, organizers and members of progressive organizations are becoming the norm and are utilized to conduct actual raids of offices and effect illegal arrests.
Harassments and surveillance of human rights defenders is intensifying and constitutes a black mark as well as a challenge to this new administration,’ Clamor said.
Indeed, the Aquino administration, which promised reforms, should know by now that for every human rights victim, there are thousands of human rights defenders who will stand up for them.