Urgent appeal for action on the arrest of Dr. Maria Natividad Marian “Naty” Castro

Dear friends and colleagues,

Another human rights defender has been arrested in the Philippines. On February 18, 2022, at around 9:30 a.m., community doctor, public health practitioner, and human rights worker Dr. Maria Natividad Marian “Naty” Castro was arrested by combined elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines who barged in her family’s home in San Juan City — less than a day after the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning red-tagging and the attacks on human rights defenders in the Philippines.

According to Dr. Castro’s siblings, she was brought to the San Juan City Police Station and then to the Quirino Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City to supposedly undergo medical examination. Shortly after, she was taken to the PNP’s headquarters in Camp Crame. Her family and legal counsels were escorted to the PNP Intelligence Group building, but they were not allowed to access her; even their requests to bring her medicine for her hypertension and diabetes were ignored. Authorities eventually brought Dr. Castro to Caraga without notifying her family or legal counsels. They were only informed that afternoon that she was already taken from Camp Crame and was already being brought to the airport, but details regarding her supposed flight, however, were not given by the police.

Throughout the afternoon after and the following morning, February 19, 2022, Dr. Castro was held incommunicado, with her family left in the dark about her situation. Only after widespread calls for the PNP to disclose Dr. Castro’s whereabouts did they say that she was being held at the Bayugan City Police Station in Agusan del Sur. On Monday afternoon, February 21, 2022, her family and legal counsels were finally able to see and speak with her, and upon the order of the Bayugan City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 7, Dr. Castro was transferred to the Agusan del Sur Provincial Jail on February 22, 2022.

Bayugan City RTC Branch 7 Acting Presiding Judge Fernando Fudalan issued the arrest warrant against Dr. Castro on January 30, 2020 for trumped-up charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention, but she was not served a subpoena on these charges before the warrant was issued — depriving her of her right to due process and to pursue the appropriate legal remedies to dismiss these charges. Even the arrest warrant itself does not contain her name, the closest of which is only a “Dra. Maria Natividad,” but without her surname.

In November 2020, Dr. Castro’s picture, along with that of several other human rights defenders in Caraga, were strewn on a social media account and tarpaulins in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, alleging that they were members and supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army. After her arrest, officials of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as well as the Police Regional Office 13 have red-tagged Dr. Castro by publicly and falsely branding her as an arrested “terrorist” and Central Committee member of the CPP. Dr. Castro, however, is not a criminal — much less a rebel and a terrorist.

A respected public health practitioner, Dr. Castro is a distinguished alumna of St. Scholastica High School in Manila and of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine Class 1995. Since 1996, Dr. Castro has helped set up community centers and programs among the poorest and marginalized Filipinos in far-flung areas in Mindanao. Dr. Castro has also brought before the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland the plight of indigenous Lumad communities, and for her tireless work as a community-based health worker and former national council member of Karapatan as well as its regional chapter in Caraga, she has been repeatedly red-tagged and slapped with various trumped-up charges.

In March 2019, a trumped-up case of kidnapping and serious illegal detention was filed against Dr. Castro; also listed as accused are 78 other names — among them activists, human rights defenders, church workers, indigenous people’s rights advocates, unionists, and peasant organizers based in the Caraga region in Mindanao. One of the respondents in the said case is Karapatan paralegal Renalyn Tejero, who was arrested in Cagayan de Oro and brought to Butuan City on March 21, 2021.

Karapatan asserts that these charges against Dr. Castro are fabricated and baseless, and her arrest is clearly part of the continuing judicial harassment against her and other human rights defenders in the Philippines.

Also concerning are the circumstances of her arrest: that she was held incommunicado for a day, was denied access to her family, her legal counsels, and medical doctors of choice, and was flown to Agusan del Sur without her family’s and legal counsels’ knowledge are glaring violations of her rights as a person under detention under the Philippine Constitution and Philippine laws such as Republic Act No. 7438, as well as breaches of the PNP’s own operational procedures. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights has raised concerns regarding the arrest of Dr. Castro as it launched a motu proprio investigation into the violations.

Human rights work is not a crime. Human rights work is not terrorism. In the middle of a public health crisis such as the COVID-19, arresting a renowned community health worker like Dr. Castro is a disservice to the communities she has been working with. We call on all our allies, communities, fellow human rights advocates, and all freedom-loving Filipinos and the international community to support the urgent calls to free Dr. Castro and to drop the trumped-up charges against her, and to stand with us against judicial harassment and the persecution of human rights defenders and authoritarian rule in the Philippines.

You can view the PDF copy of the urgent appeal below. You can also download it through this link.