MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) - It took 10 months and one week, a hunger strike, numerous pleas from various human rights and health groups to set free members of a group of health workers accused of communist links.
On Friday, around 11 p.m., 23 female members of the "Morong 43" group stepped out of the Camp Bagong Diwa detention center in Taguig to an eager audience of tearful relatives and supporters, human rights lawyers, and media practitioners who gathered at the gate.
The women, who came out one by one, pumped their fists in the air. They chanted, "Palayain, bilanggong politikal!"
At around 1:42 a.m. Saturday, the 15 male detainees in the same camp were also released.
Their long-awaited freedom came hours after two local courts of the Rizal province issued their release orders on late Friday afternoon.
In a press conference at Trinity University of Asia in Quezon City, they said they will pursue a case against their captors.
"Siguro karapatan naman namin iyon (file a case). Hindi pa namin napa-finalize kase we all have to agree kung ano iyong isasampa namin," Dr. Mary Clamor, one of the freed members, told reporters.
"On my part, [at] sigurado sa iba at sa maraming sumusuporta, tama lang na papanagutin sila doon sa ginawa nila (military and police)," added Clamor, a member of Council for Health and Development, a non-government organization.
5 more to go
Of the 43 total detainees, 38 were at Camp Bagong Diwa, including two who gave birth and one who had been recovering at a hospital after a recent hunger strike.
Five are at a military facility in Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal. They face other charges, ranging from murder, rape, and others after reportedly admitting to being communist rebels.
The 5 were also included in the release orders. As of reporting time, there is still no news of their release.
"Morong 43" is a moniker given by human rights groups and the media to a group arrested in a farm house in the town of Morong in Rizal last February 6.
Joint forces of the police and the military arrested them on charges that the group members are communist rebels engaged in bomb-making activities.
President Aquino ordered the release of the "Morong 43" based on reports that they were denied due process during their arrest.
Aquino gave the order during the global commemoration of the Human Rights Day last December 10.
The "Morong 43" case has been hailed as a human rights violation.
Their release came 13 days after Luis Jalandoni, the self-exiled chief peace negotiator of the National Democratic Front (NDF), arrived in Manila.
Jalandoni's return came after the government and the communist group forged an 18-day holiday ceasefire, the first after both sides suspended peace talks in 2004. Formal peace negotiations are scheduled in February.
The military has been firm that the "Morong 43" are members of the New People's Army, the armed wing of a rebel group under Jalandoni's NDF.
Members and supporters of the "Morong 43," however, have repeatedly denied any link with the communist group, claiming they were on a medical training mission on the day of their arrest.
Various health, human rights, and media organizations condemned their arrest.
A hunger strike by the "Morong 43" and their supporters was ongoing when Aquino ordered the withdrawal of charges against them. - with a report from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News