[EXPLAINER] Who is Doc Naty and why is her arrest unjust?

She may well be the poster girl of service and selflessness. But the State thinks she is a top criminal deserving of the heavy-handed arrest she was subjected to by the police last Friday.

Dr. Ma. Natividad Marian Castro was arrested commando style in their San Juan City home in the heart of the metropolis, the police disregarding her Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to apprehend who they allege is a top Communist Party of the Philippines leader.

But as her arrest quickly spread on social media, institutions she was associated with described her and her life’s work with nothing but acclaim and immediately condemned what she is being made to endure.

Who is Doc Naty? What made her a target of State heavy-handedness? Why do many people demand her freedom?

Honor student

One of the first institutions that immediately condemned Doc Naty’s arrest was her alma mater St. Scholastica’s College-Manila (SSC-M) where she graduated High School Batch ’84 valedictorian. The community doctor, the school said, was one of the 100 outstanding alumnae who was awarded the St. Scholastica’s Alumnae Foundation Inc. Centennial Award in 2006 because of her outstanding humanitarian work setting up community-based health programs and services in Mindanao.

“She exemplifies the Scholastican and Benedictine spirit, in her life of ora et labora (prayer and work) and service especially to the poor and the marginalized sectors of our society. She embraced the lives of the most impoverished of farmers, fisher folk and indigenous people on the mountains and plains in the Caraga Region of Mindanao. Dr. Naty even brought to Geneva some of the Lumad people to seek help as victims of militarization,” SSC-M said in a statement a day after her arrest.

In their own statement of support, Doc Naty’s fellow Isko/Iska (people’s scholars) said she was outstanding in academics “[i]n UP Diliman where she graduated cum laude in BS Zoology, and onto UP College of Medicine where she graduated with [them] in 1995.”

“Naty is not an ordinary doctor. She is a servant leader actively involved in health and human rights and working towards providing health care for all by serving in rural and geographically isolated areas,” members of the UP College of Medicine (UPCM) Class of 1995 said.

UPCM’s Department of Family and Community Medicine said Doc Naty did nothing but live up to the ideals of a doctor that the country invested in. “Her 26-year career is not of wrongdoing but that of selfless service to the poor and the marginalized,” it said.

Many other health and human rights organizations immediately came out with their acclamation of Doc Naty’s life’s work and condemnation of the brutish manner in which she was arrested, including the Health Action for Human Rights, Karapatan, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), Gabriela, Pangkalusugang Lingkod Bayan-UP Manila, Community Medicine Development Foundation (COMMED), Community-Based Health Program (CBHP)-Butuan, and even former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst who twitted said he was “more than worried” over her arrest. Even senatorial candidates Dr. Minguita Padilla and Dr. Carl Balita condemned the arrest.

SSC-M said it is ridiculous to accuse its alumna of kidnapping and illegal detention of those she is helping and whose human rights she is defending.

“It is unjust that one who has chosen to live in places that are not reached by the services that every human being is entitled to receive; one who has committed her life to give life to others, is now deprived of her right to life, a life that she has lived witnessing to Christ’s love and compassion,” the school said.

In her own words

What was Doc Naty, a top graduate of the country’s top schools, doing in the hinterlands, dispensing health care to people who obviously could not afford to pay for even the most basic of health care?

In her own words, Doc Naty said she had been working as a community doctor, public health practitioner and human rights activist in the Agusan Provinces since she started practicing medicine professionally in 1996.  

“I worked with marginalized sectors in rural and urban communities, mainly with families of farmers, agricultural and mining workers, informal sectors in the urban poor and national minorities, helping peoples’ organizations build their capacity to respond to their immediate and long term health needs within the context of mutual cooperation and empowerment,” she wrote in September 11, 2021, explaining what she does to her batch mates in the UPCM Class of 1995.

She listed the organizations that she worked in all these years, including CBHP-Butuan, COMMED, Karapatan, the Missionary Sisters of Mary, the Religious of the Good Shepherd, SSC-M’s ENFIDE Institute, and even the government’s own Department of Health-Region 10 in its European Union-sponsored Women’s Health and Safe Motherhood Project.

“I started in Agusan at a time when epidemics of cholera and measles were yearly cycles and malaria, schistosomiasis and tuberculosis were so rampant that our health services were vital in remote Lumad and peasant communities or else people died for lack of medical care,” she revealed.

Dr. Ma. Natividad Marian Castro being comforted by her sister when she was surfaced at Bayugan City Jail last Saturday. (Photo from Dr. Darby Santiago’s FB wall.)

Like most other community doctors, Doc Naty was witness to the other injustices their patients suffer. These include the killings of farmers, workers and Lumad for the sake of mining in the region she chose to serve. She described the violence as a widespread displacement of Lumad communities to clear the path for the foreign exploitation of non-renewable resources such as metals and coal, the declaration of large tracts of land with peasant and Lumad communities as special economic zones, rendering the people powerless to assert their right to land, livelihood and resources.

“[T]hese issues have become central to my work in the past 10 years, I find myself working more and more with church people, people in the academe, media, the educated youth and other professionals to explain issues of environment justice and human rights, how the basic sectors of farmers and workers should have a voice in the path to sustainable and just development, how the rights of the Lumad as historical and cultural stewards of their ancestral domain must take precedence over its destruction in the name of development,” she explained.

It was with this conviction that Doc Naty traveled to Geneva, Switzerland in 2016 to plead the case of the Lumad before the international community. This may be one of the reasons why posters were put all over Caraga on November 20, 2020 by suspected state agents alleging Doc Naty and other known human rights defenders of the region are “communist NPAs (New People’s Army).”

But Doc Naty said that all the medical missions she was part of, all the trainings she conducted to tutor thousands of new community health workers from among the peasant and the Lumad, all the workshops she held to produce effective herbal medicines, all the encouragements she dispensed to encourage “walking blood banks”, all the minor surgery and dental extractions she performed, and all the births she assisted, were worth it.  As a result of their work in communities and through cooperation and collaboration with government and non-government programs and projects, disease control programs for malaria, schistosomiasis and tuberculosis have effectively reached the grassroots level while epidemics of cholera and measles have become scarce in the past 10 years.

“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,” she wrote.

Doc Naty was aware of how her work is viewed by the government. “In my field of work, the money is scarce, job/personal security is poor (hahaha) 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,” she wrote.

It is in the midst of a global pandemic and while Doc Naty was taking care of family members that she was repaid by a contemptuous State in ways it is most accustomed to.

Raid on an ancestral home

Doc Naty’s younger sister Menchi graphically described in a Rappler interview how Friday’s arrest went. Menchi said that she just came from hearing Mass and was opening their gate when plains-clothed men approached, pushed her aside and caused her bruises. They did not identify themselves and forced their way in. Menchi said that other men in civilian clothes scaled their walls. The raiders destroyed their front door and arrested Doc Naty.

Menchi added that it was only when the raiders were already inside the house that they were able to talk to them. They were showed a photocopy of an arrest warrant issued by the Bayugan City Regional Trial Court that contained hundreds of names that did not include Doc Naty’s. The doctor was then whisked away without being allowed to put on shoes.

The FLAG, retained as counsels by Doc Naty’s relatives after the raid, immediately sought access to her at the Intelligence Group, Camp Crame, where she was reportedly brought and detained. Before this, her sister, who was also at Crame, was denied access, as was another lawyer-friend.

“Upon inquiry, police officers from the Intelligence Group informed FLAG that Dr. Castro was no longer at Camp Crame as she was supposedly ‘brought to the airport’ to be ‘delivered to the court’ in Butuan City. Family members proceeded to the airport but were not able to see her there. The scheduled flight to Butuan took off without any confirmation of Dr. Castro being on board. Requests for copies of the warrant of arrest, reports and documents relative to Dr. Castro’s arrests and transportation likewise went unheeded,” FLAG revealed.

Throughout the whole afternoon and continuing to the present, none of her relatives or lawyers has been able to gain access to Doc Naty and no official confirmation from her captors, the PNP, has been made as to her whereabouts,” the group of human rights lawyers narrated.

“Dr. Castro has been denied access to her counsel and to her family, in violation of her rights under the Constitution and the law. She was also denied her medication for her hypertension and diabetes because the police refused to allow her sister who wanted to bring her medicines and test kits to have access to Dr. Castro,” it continued.

Dr. Ma. Natividad Marian Castro at Bayugan City last Saturday. (Photo from Dr. Darby Santiago’s FB page)

On Saturday, Doc Naty was surfaced at the Bayugan City Jail where her family was finally allowed to see and talk to her. The CHR, who was also present, was informed that the doctor would be presented to the public prosecutor’s office when it opens tomorrow, Monday.

As the charges against Doc Naty are non-bailable, chances of her immediately regaining freedom are slim. But her lawyers are sure to question the manner of her arrest as well as her name’s absence in the photocopied arrest warrant shown her family. It will surely take months or years before the community doctor would again be free to dispense health care to the peasant and Lumad communities dear to her. But as in the case of vice principal and ACT Teachers Union secretary general Rosanilla “Lai” Consad in Butuan who was released after less than a year in jail, Doc Naty’s family and friends hope it shall be sooner than later. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)