MANILA >> A Philippine government decision to drop charges against 43 health workers detained for months on suspicion of being insurgents will bolster planned talks on ending the 4-decade-long communist rebellion, the rebels said Sunday.
On Friday, President Benigno Aquino III ordered prosecutors to drop charges against the “Morong 43,” named after the coastal town east of Manila where they were arrested in February.
While the underground Communist Party of the Philippines welcomed the decision, it said Aquino’s government needs to do more to improve human rights, adding that about 400 other political detainees are still being held.
Government negotiator Alexander Padilla said authorities are reviewing the cases of several other detainees.
The rebels took up arms 41 years ago to establish a Marxist state, accusing the government of failing to solve deep poverty, social and political divisions, and of being subservient to U.S. interests. An estimated 120,000 people have died in the conflict.
After years of impasse, Padilla met with his rebel counterpart, Luis Jalandoni, in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. They agreed to a 19-day Christmas cease-fire starting Dec. 16 and talks in January to discuss the planned resumption of formal negotiations the following month.
Aquino’s order to drop the charges against the health workers is a “boost of goodwill for the forthcoming resumption of peace negotiations,” the communist party said in a statement.
But it added that “there are a thousand more steps that the Aquino government needs to do in the face of the worsening human rights conditions in the country.”
The 43 detainees have insisted they are volunteer medical workers and accused troops of planting weapons and bomb-making materials as evidence against them. They became a symbol of widespread allegations of human rights violations by government forces.
In a speech marking International Human Rights Day, Aquino said Friday that the medical workers were arrested on suspicion of aiding the rebels. While the concerns were valid, “we recognize that their right to due process was denied them,” Aquino said.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima cited “some defects” in the search warrant and the arrests 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’s order still needs court approval, which is expected in the next few weeks. The military said it would respect Aquino’s decision but won’t apologize to the detainees, insisting they were guerrillas.
What the troops did was “highly commendable,” regional commander Lt. Gen. Roland Detabali said, adding his troops understood Aquino’s intentions. “We will follow the political leadership,” he said.
Padilla said the move reflected Aquino’s policy of respecting human rights and was a confidence-building step ahead of the planned resumption of peace talks, which have been brokered by Norway.
He said Aquino’s government sincerely wants to clinch a peace pact with the rebels.
“The president has no hidden agenda,” Padilla said. “He wants to finish this and not pass this headache on to the next administration.”
The talks stalled in 2004 when the rebels accused then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration of instigating their inclusion in U.S. and E.U. terrorist blacklists.
Human rights groups have blamed security forces for as many as 1,000 deaths during Arroyo’s stormy nine-year rule, which ended in June.