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House urged to condemn, probe arrest of community doctor Natividad Castro

MANILA, Philippines — Bayan Muna lawmakers are asking the House of Representatives to condemn and investigate the arrest of community doctor and human rights advocate Ma. Natividad Castro, a call that is likely to be ignored by a chamber dominated by allies of President Rodrigo Duterte and with members likely looking towards the May elections.

Malacañang denied Tuesday that Castro’s arrest was due to red-tagging, even if the Philippine National Police have accused the doctor of being a ranking member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The red-tagging anti-communist task force as well as government media have highlighted the alleged communist links and have said that Castro was arrested according to procedure.

"Amid the poor government response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe shortage of health workers, the continuing harassment against our doctors is unacceptable and highly condemnable," Reps. Eufemia Cullamat, Carlos Zarate and Ferdinand Gaite said in House Resolution No. 2496.

"Doctors and health workers, especially those who choose to serve the most depressed rural areas should be given support by the government, not subjected to unlawful arrests of possible fabricated charges," they also said.

The lawmakers noted that “the vilification, harassment and even extrajudicial killing of community health workers continue under the Duterte administration” even amid the pandemic.

Red-tagging ‘intensifies’

They cited the killings of Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan, head of Guihulngan City’s Interagency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, and of Zara Alvarez, advocacy officer for community-based health programs in Bacolod City, both of whom were red-tagged, or accused of being part of the armed communist rebellion.

Likewise, the lawmakers said Castro was also red-tagged prior to her arrest over kidnapping and serious illegal detention charges, which her family is questioning.

"On November 20, 2020, tarpaulins tagging her and other human rights defenders as ‘communist NPAs’ were put up in public places all over Caraga region by suspected state agents," the Bayan Muna representatives said.

The Commission on Human Rights also said that Castro was red-tagged for her work, which include initiating health programs in Mindanao, bringing members of the Lumad community before the United Nations in Geneva to seek help against harassment in their areas, and serving as secretary general of rights group Karapatan in Caraga region.

The lawmakers said that red-tagging and harassment has “intensified” under Duterte through his notorious anti-communist task force, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

Cullamat, Zarate and Gaite are part of the progressive Makabayan bloc in the House, who have consistently called on the chamber to act on red-tagging and other incidents of harassment on human rights defenders.

These, however, have fallen on deaf ears as their numerous resolutions calling on the House to condemn and investigate these attacks have not yet been acted on.

Congress is on a break for the election season until May 22.

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