After finishing her medical training, Dr. Maria Natividad “Naty” Castro left her home in Metro Manila to practice rural medicine. She started a number of community health centers serving Indigenous Peoples, the Lumads, in Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippine archipelago. She has trained community health workers and has participated in disaster relief. As a public health expert, she has worked to bring malaria, schistosomiasis, tuberculosis, cholera, and measles under control. She accompanied a member of the Lumad community to testify at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding violations of the human rights of Lumads by the military.
Dr. Castro returned to Metro Manila in 2020 to care for her ailing mother, who has since passed away. On February 18, 2022, the police broke down the doors of the Castro family home and arrested Dr. Castro. Her family and lawyers report that she was initially held incommunicado, not receiving due process. She has been transported to Mindanao to face trumped-up charges of kidnapping and illegal detention. On the face of it, it is absurd to accuse this dedicated physician and public health practitioner of such crimes.
Dr. Castro is just one of the countless advocates for social progress, including peasant and labor leaders, human rights and environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, and health workers who have been attacked, harassed, intimidated, or killed. In the Philippines those who stand up for the welfare of the common people are “red-tagged,” i.e. labeled as terrorist, communist, or both, by security forces or those in the government. Red-tagging stifles dissent by undermining democracy and due process and encourages assassinations and retaliations. The legal climate under the regime of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is de facto martial law. Prior to these laws, Duterte’s failed “drug war” had claimed the lives of 30,000 Filipinos.
The illegal arrest of Dr. Castro is occurring several months prior to national elections in May 2022. We can expect the upcoming elections in the Philippines to be characterized by the corruption, fraud, warlordism, and violence that have occurred historically – particularly as the Duterte government is challenged by the Leni Robredo camp, which vows to respect human rights. In addition the son of Ferdinand Marcos, Bongbong Marcos, is running for President, seeking to reverse the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986, which toppled the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, after decades of abuse of power. This upcoming week, Filipino organizations and their allies in the U.S. will be joining Filipinos in the homeland to commemorate 36 years since the People Power Revolution, highlighting the call Never Again to Martial Law.
Dr. Castro is an epitome of a true servant not only in her work as a medical doctor but also in defense of those who have been treated unjustly. Her life has been dedicated to service to her people. As healthcare workers in the U.S., we believe that Dr. Castro’s treatment is arbitrary and shameful. We demand that Dr. Castro be released immediately and be given medical attention by physicians of her choice. The government of the Philippines should put an end to the harassment and violations against all human rights defenders and ensure that humanitarians like Dr. Castro can carry out their task of serving the poor.
We call upon the U.S. Congress to pass the Philippines Human Rights Act (PHRA), which would cut off U.S. government funding to the Philippine military and police. The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department would be required to submit a report to the Congressional Appropriations Committee regarding such funding and any misappropriation of any other funding to the Philippine military and police. Duterte must not be allowed to continue to violate the human rights of the people of the Philippines. He must be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.