healthcare workers

Police whisk doctor Natividad Castro to Butuan, hold her incommunicado

Lian Buan

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Police whisk doctor Natividad Castro to Butuan, hold her incommunicado

ARRESTED. Mug shot of Dr. Naty Castro after she was arrested by the police.

Jun Castro

(1st UPDATE) The Free Legal Assistance Group says if Castro's family and lawyers still have no access to her within 24 hours, they will file complaints for violation of legal and constitutional rights

MANILA, Philippines – Natividad Castro, a doctor who helped the Lumad set up health centers in Mindanao, has been held incommunicado since she was arrested in her San Juan home and whisked off to Butuan City on Friday, February 18.

“Throughout the whole afternoon [on Friday] continuing to the present, none of her relatives or lawyers have been able to gain access to Dr. Castro and no official confirmation from her captors, the Philippine National Police, has been made as to her whereabouts,” said the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in a statement Saturday morning, February 19.

The PNP confirmed the arrest of Castro, who had been red-tagged in her work as a human rights and development worker, and accused her of being a communist rebel.

Castro’s lawyers were not given a copy of the arrest warrant or any other reports and documents related to her case, said FLAG.

A copy of the warrant of arrest obtained by Rappler shows it was issued way back January 30, 2020, by Agusan del Sur Regional Trial Court Branch 7 in Bayugan City. Included in the warrant are a dozen other nongovernmental workers over charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention.

In December 2021, Branch 7 quashed the warrants against at least 17 NGO workers, rights activists, and peace advocates. The names of at least 14 of those 17 freed appear on the copy of Castro’s warrant that we have seen.

The 17 were arrested in relation to a New People’s Army raid of a supposed paramilitary camp in Barangay Tubigon, Sibagat town in Agusan del Sur on February 19, 2019.

But it cannot be said with certainty if that’s the case involving Castro’s arrested since her lawyers were not properly briefed.

“Requests for copies of the warrant of arrest, reports, and documents relative to Dr. Castro’s arrests and transportation likewise went unheeded,” said FLAG.

In a statement later on Saturday, the PNP said that Castro was brought to and detained in Bayugan City, Agusan del Sur, where the court that issued the arrest warrant is located. The airport in Butuan City is the nearest airport to Bayugan City.

The PNP said that her alleged “membership” in the local communist movement is not the basis of the arrest “but her alleged criminal actions that constitute participation in a case of kidnapping with serious illegal detention.”

The police said that the CHR has already been informed about Castro’s status, but the statement was silent on her right to counsel and if due process was violated.

‘Violation of constitutional, legal rights’

According to FLAG, Castro was brought to Camp Crame after her arrest in San Juan. But Castro’s sister and a lawyer she brought with her were not allowed access to the doctor.

“Upon inquiry, police officers from the Intelligence Group informed FLAG that Dr. Castro was no longer at Camp Crame as she was supposedly brought to the airport to be delivered to the court in Butuan City,” said FLAG.

“Family members proceeded to the airport but were not able to see her there. The scheduled flight to Butuan took off without any confirmation of Dr. Castro being on board,” said FLAG.

FLAG said the denial of family and lawyers’ access to Castro violates the doctor’s constitutional and legal rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees that a person held in custody has access to a lawyer of one’s choice.

“She was also denied her medication for her hypertension and diabetes because the police refused to allow her sister who wanted to bring her medicines and test kits,” said FLAG.

FLAG said they will file complaints against state officers if Castro is not seen by family and lawyers within 24 hours.

“FLAG demands that an official investigation be conducted identifying all those responsible for denying family members and counsel access to Dr. Castro and for the PNP to submit a report on action taken within 48 hours,” said FLAG.

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The Commission on Human Rights said it was conducting a motu propio investigation into the manner of Castro’s arrest while various groups and institutions condemned Castro’s arrest and demanded her release.

In a statement, Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan also condemned the arrest of Castro, saying: “Kinukundena natin ang pag-aresto kay Dr. Naty Castro, isang premyadong manggagamot ng mga walang-wala nating katutubo. Nakakagimbal ang mala-Martial Law na mga taktiktang ginagamit ng mga awtoridad pagdakip sa kanya.”

He also cited reports that she was arrested by plainclothes police who had no proper identification, and the warrant served her reportedly had no name. “Gawain yan ng mga kriminal at walang pagkilala sa batas, hindi ng mga alagad ng batas (That is what criminals who have no regard for law do, not law enforcers),” he said.

(We condemn the arrest of Dr. Naty Castro, an award-winning doctor of our poor indigenous people. The Martial Law tactic used by authorities to arrest her is alarming.)

Pangilinan said they are ready to provide legal, medical, and moral support to Castro.

DOH: Natividad is ‘presumed innocent’

During a Laging Handa public briefing on Saturday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire addressed Castro’s arrest, saying: “Kami po, nirerecognize po namin ’yung efforts ng ating mga doktor, ng ating mga healthcare workers katulad ni Doktora Naty na tumutulong sa ating mga marginalized at saka disadvantaged groups. Lahat naman po tayo would be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, so hintayin lang po natin ang proseso na sinasagawa ngayon, para makita po natin kung ano po ang kalalabasan.”

(We recognize the efforts of our doctors and healthcare workers like Dr. Naty, who help our marginalized and disadvantaged groups. All of us would be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, so let’s just wait for the ongoing process and see what will be the outcome.)

Castro’s batchmates from the University of the Philippines describe her as “outstanding” and “not an ordinary doctor.”

“She is a servant leader actively involved in health and human rights and working towards providing health care for all by serving in rural and geographically isolated areas,” said the UP College of Medicine Class of 1995 in a statement of support.

A certain Elsa Renton was also named in the warrant for Castro. Renton was a police target in 2019 but they instead arrested Davao City-based journalist Margarita Valle, and held her incommunicado too.

The PNP would later admit wrongful arrest due to mistaken identity, but the Office of the Ombudsman cleared the cops of any liability saying there was no “evil purpose.”

Valle, who struggled to write after her experience, has gone to the Supreme Court to seek accountability for what happened.

The Duterte government has launched a massive crackdown on activists, which peaked during the passage of the anti-terror law. The Supreme Court upheld most of the provisions of the law, including the arbitrary power of the Anti-Terrorism Council to designate people as terrorists without having to go to court. – With a report from Loreben Tuquero/

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.