MANILA » Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered prosecutors Friday to drop criminal charges against 43 health workers arrested by the army as suspected communist rebels 10 months ago, saying their rights were violated.
The detainees, two of whom gave birth while in detention, accussed the military of planting weapons and bomb-making materials as evidence against them when they were arrested in February while attending a medical workshop east of Manila.
They also said the army subjected them to prolonged interrogation, denied their right to counsel and held them incommunicado at a military camp. Most of them were later transferred to a police jail and last week began a hunger strike to demand their freedom.
Their plight became synonymous with allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces battling a 41-year Marxist insurgency that has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.
Although not saying the health workers are members of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines or its armed wing, rebel negotiator Louis Jalandoni last week called for their release and said it would facilitate a resumption of stalled peace talks with the Philippine government.
Aquino, in a speech marking International Human Rights Day, said the medical workers were arrested on suspicion of aiding the rebels. He said while these were valid concerns, "nevertheless, 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," Aquino said. "Violators of human rights will be held accountable for their actions, and the state will protect, with unflagging commitment, the rights of all its citizens."
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima cited "some defects" in the search warrant and arrests of the workers by the military and police. "They may be correct in saying that most of them are members of the underground movement but the shortcuts they resorted to made the whole operation dubious," she said.
Aquino and de Lima did not address the allegations that the military had planted evidence. A lawyer for the detained workers said they were considering filing charges against the military authorities responsible for their arrest.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta said the armed forces would strengthen their legal procedures and use the case to learn from it.
Human rights organizations and the U.N. special investigator on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, have blamed security forces under Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for as many as 1,000 deaths between 2001 and this year, most of them farmers and activists accused by the military of collaborating with communist insurgents.