Police nabbed Dr. Maria Natividad “Naty” Castro, a health worker and human rights advocate, at their family home in Brgy. San Perfecto, San Juan City on February 18 and her family received no confirmation of her whereabouts for a day. On February 19, Castro’s sisters found out that she is being held in Agusan del Sur.
On February 20, Castro’s counsel from Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) released the update on her whereabouts.
In a statement, they said that two of “Doc Naty’s” sisters “were able to meet with her at the police headquarters in Bayugan, Agusan del Sur yesterday (February 19). They were able to speak and spend some time together.”
The group vowed to secure Castro’s freedom and the “immediate dismissal” of her case, as well as “pursue remedies against those who have red-tagged and continue to red tag” her.
They stated that it is within Dr. Castro’s rights to pursue legal remedies against police officers who violated her rights with impunity by going against established procedure when she was taken from her home in San Juan, including the refusal of access to her family and counsel, and for failing to notify them when she was transported.
Likewise, the legal group contradicted the police’s social media announcements tagging Castro as a communist and terrorist, stating that “she is a health worker who has been helping those who need help most.”
Meanwhile, a video of Castro was posted on one of her sibling’s Facebook account on February 20, where she was seen expressing her gratitude for the outpour of support given to her since her arrest.
In the short footage with subtitles transcribed by her other sibling, Castro said, “Ako’y nagpapasalamat sa inyong lahat na patuloy na nagdasal, nakikiramay at sumusubaybay sa aking kalagayan ngayon. Bagaman mahirap, nagpapasalamat ako sa lahat ng nagpapagaan ng matinding pagsubok na ito…”
[I thank all those who continued to pray, support and monitor my situation now. While hard, I thank all those who make easier this difficult ordeal.]
She then proceeded to thank her classmates and colleagues in St. Scholastica’s College, University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, and UP Manila College of Medicine, and her lawyer Atty. John Unay.
Arrest and unknown whereabouts
Castro, also known as “Doc Naty,” was arrested on February 18 on charges of alleged multiple kidnapping and illegal detention for suspected participation in the kidnapping of a member of the Civilian Active Auxiliary (CAA) in Agusan del Sur last 2018.
The police also accused Castro of being a high-ranking member of the Communist Party of the Philippines, being the alleged head of its National Health Bureau. However, they stated that the basis of her arrest is not due to her suspected membership in the communist group, but to her alleged involvement in the kidnapping and illegal detention.
A statement by FLAG on February 18 said that Castro was brought and detained in Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police (PNP) National Headquarters, after being taken away from her home. At the time, her location was still unknown as the PNP gave no official confirmation on her whereabouts. She was also denied access to her family and legal counsel, which the group stated was “in violation of her rights under the Constitution and the law.”
The group also revealed that Castro was denied medical care when the police refused her sister to have access to her when she brought medicines and test kits for Castro’s hypertension and diabetes.
Additionally, their request was denied when the legal group asked for copies of “warrant of arrest, report and documents” on Dr. Castro’s case.
Doctor and human rights advocate, not communist or terrorist
Human rights groups have decried Castro’s arrest as another case of red-tagging by the government, due to her background as a human rights defender who gave health services in rural and displaced areas, particularly in Mindanao.
Health Action for Human Rights (HAHR) condemned the arrest, stating that the red-tagging accusations and charges against her are “trumped-up” and false.
“Dr. Castro could have made a prominent career in medicine in the urban areas or even abroad after her graduation, but she chose to work in the rural areas of Mindanao. She set-up community-based health programs, trained community health workers, treated patients and joined various medical missions and disaster and relief operations,” the group said in a press release.
They added, “Dr. Castro’s active involvement in health and human rights issues exemplifies her belief in narrowing down health inequities by providing health services to rural and geographically isolated and displaced areas.”
In relation to her human rights advocacy, Castro in 2016 brought some members of the Lumad community to Geneva, Switzerland, to participate in the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions, where they discussed the human rights violations that the Lumad are facing due to militarization, and to seek help for their plight.
The Commission on Human Rights in their statement had voiced out their “grave concern” on PNP’s manner of arrest of Castro, declaring that they have “dispatched a quick response team in NCR [National Capital Region] and Caraga, and is undertaking a motu propio investigation on the reports received that indicate possible violations of the [PNP] rules of procedure.”
Moreover, the UP Manila, UP-PGH, UP College of Medicine and the UP Medical Alumni Society, in a joint statement, also expressed their concerns on the arrest, stating that “another doctor practicing in the undeserved areas where we have asked our graduates to serve is being maligned and red tagged.”
They also asked for support in ensuring the safety and welfare of Dr. Castro, hoping that “her rights under the rule of law be respected and upheld.”
The Department of Health (DOH), meanwhile, also aired their sentiment on the issue. Without explicitly naming Castro, they stated in a Facebook post on February 19 that “the contributions of our health workers, especially those who have opted to work with the undeserved are immeasurable.”
They continued, “All our citizens, health workers included, enjoy the constitutional guarantees of due process and presumption of innocence until proven guilty. We trust our authorities to uphold these rights.”