Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - It was a birthday "present" like no other for former Philippine president Gloria Arroyo, who lost her immunity from suit when she stepped down on June 30 last year.
Six members of the 'Morong 43' Monday (April 4) lodged a 15-million-peso (US$345,542) civil suit against Arroyo, now a Pampanga province representative, and 10 others for illegal arrest and torture.
Morong 43 is the collective name of a group of 43 health workers arrested and detained illegally by Philippine military during Arroyo's administration on suspicion that they were supporters of the New Peoples Army rebels.
The case was filed by Dr. Merry Mia Clamor, Dr. Alexis Montes, nurse Gary Liberal, Ma. Teresa Quinawayan, Reynaldo Macabenta and Mercy Castro, who were among the group of health workers detained last year in Morong, Rizal province, on suspicion of being communist rebels.
"We want GMA (Arroyo's initials) to know that she can't get away with what she did," said Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), who accompanied the plaintiffs in filing the suit in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.
Olalia said he had no idea that April 5 was the birthday of Arroyo. "This is totally unconnected," he said at the Quezon City Hall of Justice.
Arroyo declined to comment on the suit. Her spokesperson, Elena Bautista-Horn, said that Arroyo's lawyers had advised the former President against giving any comment until they had secured a copy of the formal complaint.
The suit seeks the award of moral and exemplary damages and payment of the cost of litigation.
The health workers were suspected to be rebels and arrested in February 2010. They were charged with various crimes, including illegal possession of firearms and explosives in the Morong Regional Trial Court.
The military claimed that the group was conducting training on explosives at a resort when they were arrested. The workers said they were holding a health seminar.
Nearly a year in jail
The health workers spent nearly a year in detention at Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal, where they alleged the torture took place.
Shortly before Christmas last year, they were freed based on President Benigno Aquino III's order withdrawing the criminal information against them.
Arroyo et al.
The case filed against Arroyo et al. was based on four causes of action, which included physical, verbal and psychological abuses; illegal arrest, detention and other violations of their constitutional rights; and divesting of the plaintiffs' personal belongings.
Also named defendants were former National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Victor Ibrado, former Army chief Maj. Gen. Delfin Bangit and former 2nd Infantry Division chief Maj. Gen. Jorge Segovia.
The other defendants were Lt. Col. Cristobal Zaragosa, Maj. Manuel Tabion, Col. Aurelio Baladlad, Lt. Col. Jaime Abawag and Supt. Marion Balolong and Supt. Allan Nubleza - all based in Camp Capinpin.
Arroyo and Gonzales, according to the suit, were then in a position to stop the alleged violations of the Morong 43's rights as the former President was aware of the plight of the health workers because of several pleas sent to her office.
"However, defendant Arroyo did not lift a finger to alleviate the conditions of the plaintiffs," the suit alleged.
Neglect of duty
Arroyo's alleged neglect of her duty to stop the Morong 43's suffering at the hands of her subordinates also caused losses and injuries to the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs claimed that they lost personal belongings such as cell phones, laptops and other possessions.
"As a result, all the individual defendants are jointly and severally liable for all the damages and injuries sustained by the plaintiffs during their detention at Camp Capinpin," the complaint said.
'Best legal aid'
The military has denied the allegations.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines said it would give its all-out support to the officers named in the civil case.
The five military officers on active service included in the suit can expect "the best legal assistance" from the AFP, a military spokesperson said.
The military has anticipated the suit since most of the Morong 43 were released last December to pave the way for the resumption of peace talks between the government and communist rebels, Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta Jr. said.
"This is what we may call hazards of the trade. These are some of the things we have to face as we move on and ensure that rules of engagements are (followed)," he said.
Mabanta said he welcomed the suit as it would be an opportunity for the military to set the record straight that it did not torture the Morong 43.
"We hope authorities will come up with decisions based on the truth in order for the accused to clear their names," he said.
He called on the accused officers to stay strong and keep up what they were doing.
The civil case is the first that the NUPL and the Morong 43 have filed against Arroyo, but Olalia said other cases would follow.
"This sends a clear signal that the buck stops with Arroyo," Olalia said.
Thirty-eight members of the Morong 43 have expressed interest in filing a complaint, but "we are still building the case because we want it to be airtight," he said.
Olalia told reporters that should the other health workers choose to file a damage suit, they would just amend Monday's civil case to include the other litigants.
"There are other cases to follow. It may be civil or criminal. If it's a criminal case, we will have the preliminary investigation done at the department of justice," he said.
Reposted From Julie M. Aurelio and Dona Pazzibugan of PDI and ANN