1. Who is Dr. Naty Castro?
Dr. Maria Natividad Marian Silva Castro or Doc Naty, as she is fondly called by her colleagues and friends, has been working as a community doctor, public health practitioner, and human rights activist in the Caraga region in the Southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines since she started practicing medicine in 1996. After being harassed, and arrested for her work, in January, 2023, The Philippines government’s Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) branded Doc Naty as a terrorist, placing her name on a list of security threats, this is her story.
She has lived a life of service among the marginalized sectors, mainly with families of farmers, agricultural and mining workers, informal sectors in the urban poor, and the Lumad (Indigenous People in Mindanao). The early years of her community service were dedicated to providing vital health services to far-flung communities and teaching volunteer community health workers (CHWs) to educate and treat basic diseases of the families and communities. She worked with the Community-Based Health Program in Butuan City as a program physician while completing her Alternative Residency Program with the Community Medicine Development Foundation from 1996 to 1998.
She started working in Agusan province at a time when epidemics of cholera and measles were a yearly cycle, and malaria, schistosomiasis, and tuberculosis were so rampant that health services by medical professionals were vital in remote Lumad, and peasant communities or else people died for lack of medical care.
One of her responsibilities was to organize Community Health Workers (CHWs) to be frontline health organizers, teachers, and health care providers. Together with the CHWs, she encouraged communities to organize walking blood banks, explore and produce effective herbal medicines, and learn about modalities of treatment like traditional Chinese medicine and the use of indigenous herbal medicines. They encouraged people to study their community’s health knowledge to help them synthesize and apply appropriate and acceptable health practices in their communities. Through continuous training, long-time CHWs can examine and diagnose patients, give a combination of Western and traditional treatments to patients, and perform minor surgery and dental extractions under professional supervision. In the course of her work in the Agusan and Surigao provinces, she was able to help form more than 50 people’s organizations and train thousands of health workers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CHWs were active as paramedical workers and frontliners in their communities teaching, organizing, and caring for their neighbors and family members.
As she gained a deeper understanding of the social determinants of health by working with the communities, she became increasingly involved in non-health issues such as the killings of farmers, workers, and Lumad resisting large-scale mining projects in Mindanao, the widespread displacement of Lumad communities to clear the path for foreign exploitation of minerals, and the government declaration of a large tract of lands inhabited by peasants and Lumad as special economic zones.
Doc Naty found herself working more and more with church people, the academe, media, youth, and professionals to explain environmental justice and human rights issues. She tirelessly advocated how the basic sectors of farmers and workers should have a voice in the path to sustainable and just development, and how the rights of the Lumad as historical and cultural stewards of their ancestral land must take precedence over its destruction in the name of development.
She became the secretary general of Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) in the Caraga region. Karapatan is an alliance of individuals and organizations working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Its members are frequently red-tagged by the government and its security forces. As part of her human rights advocacy, Doc Naty trained many human rights workers for several years, led various fact-finding missions, and assisted victims of human rights violations.
In 2016, Doc Naty joined a delegation of human rights defenders in Geneva to participate in the UN Human Rights Council sessions where she passionately discussed the plight of Lumad communities.
In the words of Doc Naty, “I have seen death sown and life being rebuilt. I take comfort in the sure knowledge that the struggle for people’s development will continue as surely as I helped develop leaders and workers with integrity and fire in their hearts for the poor and marginalized. In my field of work, money is scarce, and personal security is poor, but the rewards are immeasurable when I see the babies that I have delivered thrive and become leaders themselves, dedicating their lives to continuing the development work that I helped start in their communities.”
2. What happened?
In February 2022, Doc Naty was arrested by the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. The arrest warrant mentioned trumped-up charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention.
The case was filed in March 2019 after she was accused of being involved in the kidnapping of a member of a government-armed militia in 2018 in Agusan del Sur by members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines. Also included in the charge were 78 other names, among them, were her fellow human rights defenders, activists, church workers, indigenous people’s rights advocates, unionists, and peasant organizers based in the Caraga region. In 2020, Doc Naty became a target of red tagging when her photo, along with that of other human rights defenders, circulated on social media platforms and printed in tarpaulins strewn around the town of Lianga in Surigao del Sur labeling them as members of New People’s Army.
Human rights groups raised denounced the circunstances of her arrest. The arresting officers declined to show proper identification, denied her access to a lawyer, and refused to inform the family where they intended to bring her. She was also denied a medical doctor of her choice since at the time of her arrest she was suffering from hypertension and diabetes. After over a month of detention, Doc Naty was released after the regional trial court in Agusan del Sur dismissed the charges against her for lack of probable cause. The court also found that Doc Naty’s constitutional right to due process was violated since she was not furnished a copy of the complaint affidavit during the preliminary investigations.
In a sudden turn of events, the same court reversed its ruling in June last year and ordered the re-arrest of Doc Naty after a different judge granted the motion for reconsideration filed by the prosecution. The judge averred that there was no denial of due process since a preliminary investigation was conducted.
In January this year (2023), the government’s Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) branded Doc Naty as a terrorist. In a resolution, the ATC said that it found probable cause to designate Doc Naty as a “terrorist individual” for her involvement in planning, training, preparing, and facilitating the commission of terrorism and recruitment, and providing support to alleged terrorist organizations. While the terrorist designation does not automatically lead to an arrest, the government can publish the names of designated terrorists and allow the freezing of their assets.
Karapatan asserted that Doc Naty’s designation as a terrorist is baseless and malicious and in clear violation of Doc Naty’s right to due process. This designation is meant to not only threaten and harass her, but also to put her life in danger.
Human rights groups have accused the government of carrying out surveillance, harassment, and suppression campaign against activists. State security forces have been blamed for numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests, intimidation, and forced disappearances of activists, environmentalists, tribal leaders, journalists, and trade union leaders. As a result, the Philippines is on the list of one the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders.
3. How does the intimidation/repression impact the right to health in The Philippines / the region where she works?
The unlawful arrest and the government terrorist designation of Doc Naty have, beyond doubt, sent a chilling effect on health workers and medical professionals serving in poor and rural communities. Doc Naty is not the first health worker to have borne the brunt of the government’s campaign of repression against rights defenders. Over the years, several community doctors and health workers stationed in rural communities have been murdered. Among them are Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan, the municipal health officer in the province of Negros Oriental and Zara Alvarez, a health worker and human rights defender. Both were victims of red tagging by government forces.
The terrorist designation is not only an affront to Doc Naty’s reputation as a community doctor and human rights defender but also a violation of the right to health of the communities she has served as they are deprived of much need health services, especially during the Covid 19 pandemic.
The Caraga region is one of the poorest regions in the country where nearly 1 million residents live below the poverty threshold. It is home to 500,000 indigenous people who face enormous challenges due to large-scale mining and plantations.
“In the middle of a public health crisis, arresting a community health worker like Castro is a disservice to the communities she was working with,” said a coalition of human rights defenders in a statement adding that Doc Naty is a respected public health practitioner who has helped set up community centers and programs among the poorest and marginalized sectors in far-flung areas in Mindanao.
The violence inflicted upon Doc Naty and other health workers exacerbates the situation of the country’s overworked and underpaid medical professionals. It further discourages them from serving marginalized communities thus robbing the latter of access to quality health services. It leads to an increasing number of doctors and nurses that go work abroad, bringing the country’s public health care system closer to the brink of collapse.
4. The Campaign
The PHM campaign in defense of Dr. Naty calls to:
1. Drop the trumped-up charges against Doc Naty.
2. Remove the government’s terrorist designation of Doc Naty.
3. Call for the abolition of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict and to hold its officials accountable for their relentless red-tagging of activists and human rights defenders.
4. Pressure the Philippine authorities to repeal the Anti-Terrorism Law and other repressive laws and policies, such as former President Duterte’s Executive Order 70 that created the NTF-ELCAC.
5. Campaign for the passage of House Bill 208, otherwise known as the Free, Comprehensive, and Progressive National Public Health System and the Human Rights Defenders Bill.
REFLECTIONS: “The rewards are immeasurable when I see the babies that I have delivered thrive and become leaders themselves”
Terrorist designation of red-tagged doc ‘baseless and malicious’ – rights group