Doctors Blast Philippine Govt for Arresting Physician Suspected of Communist Links

Jojo Riñoza and Froilan Gallardo
Manila and Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
Doctors Blast Philippine Govt for Arresting Physician Suspected of Communist Links Health workers rally to demand the release of Maria Natividad Castro, a medical doctor in Philippine custody on suspicion of links to the outlawed communist party, outside the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, Feb. 21, 2022.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

Doctors and health workers in the Philippines joined human rights groups on Tuesday to demand the immediate release of a physician accused of having links to communist rebels.

Intelligence agents from the Philippine National Police took Dr. Maria Natividad Castro into custody from her home in Manila on Friday, her family and colleagues said. Castro was then flown to southern Agusan del Sur province, where she was being held on what relatives claimed were trumped-up charges of kidnapping and supporting the Filipino communist insurgency.

“These are false accusations. She is a community doctor and a human rights advocate, not a criminal as the military perceives her to be,” said Dr. Julie Caguiat, a fellow physician and classmate of Castro’s in medical school.

Meanwhile, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), a government agency, accused Dr. Castro of being an “active recruiter, trainer, and fund-raiser” for the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines and its guerrilla wing, the New People’s Army. 

Known as “Dr. Naty” by friends and patients, the 53-year-old Castro is executive director of the Community-Based Health Program (CBHP), a group headquartered in southern Butuan city. The NGO provides health services to far-flung impoverished communities and also educates thousands of volunteers in medical care. Its work has been seen as crucial while the Philippines has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic during the past two years. 

Another physician, Margareta Barcelon, who represents another group of community doctors, said doctors like Castro were “rare.” Castro left the relative comfort of her suburban upbringing to serve people in rural communities and remote communities, Dr. Barcelon said.

Castro’s arrest comes as the government is preparing for presidential elections in May to replace Rodrigo Duterte, whose six-year term ends this year.

Duterte’s political nemesis, Sen. Leila de Lima, a human rights advocate, said she was “deeply concerned” with Castro’s arrest, as she called for an immediate and impartial investigation into her detention.

“I was shown photos of her [being] placed in undignified and unsanitary state, of being made to walk around barefooted when her mugshot was taken,” de Lima, who has been jailed since 2017 on what she says are false drug-related charges, said on Tuesday.

“It was also reported that the arresting officers scaled the walls of her house and destroyed her door. She was also initially denied access to her counsel, her family, and her medications,” de Lima alleged.

De Lima is campaigning for reelection to the Senate while in jail.

“Indeed, state-sponsored reprisals will always be the order of the day, and even humanitarian acts will be deemed acts of subversion if an anti-people government and its enablers remain in power,” de Lima said.

Allegations against the doctor 

Established by Duterte in 2018 supposedly to convince communist insurgents to leave the movement and instead help address poverty, the military primarily leads the inter-agency national task force to end the communist insurgency.

The NTF-ELCAC claimed on Tuesday that it had evidence and testimony from a former guerrilla leader, whom it identified as Gleceria Balangiao and who alleged that Dr. Castro was active in the communist movement. 

Balangiao, according to the NTF-ELCAC, personally met the doctor during clandestine first-aid training in the south between 2006 to 2009. 

“She worked there and trained our people in areas controlled by the NPA,” the task force quoted Balangiao as saying. Castro was alleged to be active in recruiting other health-care professionals to join the communist movement as field medics. 

President Duterte, meanwhile, has vowed to crush the long-running communist insurgency after peace talks collapsed in 2017, a year after he took power. Initially, he had sought out negotiations to end the fighting, which has scarred many areas in the country and left thousands of people dead. 

The NPA insurgency, which dates back to 1969, today is estimated to count some 5,000 fighters nationwide, down from at least 20,000 at its peak in the 1980s.

Duterte’s deputy spokesman, Karlo Nograles, denied that the government was engaged in “red-tagging” – a practice among Philippine military and police personnel of accusing individual people or groups of being communist rebels or sympathizers. A court had ordered Castro’s arrest, Nograles stressed.

“Again, this was not a case of red-tagging,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “Again, the arrest warrant was issued by the court. But even previous to that, this went through a process of investigation by a prosecutor and at every avenue, at every opportunity … they were given a chance to contest it.”


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