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Philippine doctor alleged to be top rebel freed after case dismissed

MANILA (AFP) – A Philippine doctor accused of being a leader of a rebel group and held in jail for 40 days has been freed after a judge threw out the case, her family said on Thursday.

Maria Natividad Castro (The Star pic below), 53, was arrested at her Manila home on February 18 on the basis of a 2020 court order for her to be tried on kidnapping charges.

She was accused of being part of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ central committee.

But her former employer, human rights monitor Karapatan, said the charges against Castro had been “trumped up” after she investigated alleged rights violations in the volatile Mindanao region while also setting up community health centres there.

Bayugan City Regional Trial Court Judge Fernando Fudalan, who issued the warrant for Castro’s arrest, dismissed the case against her on procedural grounds, according to a copy of the decision dated March 25 and obtained by AFP on Thursday.

Following a “painstaking review of the records”, Fudalan said Castro had been denied due process after the state prosecutor failed to summon her to a preliminary hearing.

The process allows suspects to hear the accusations against them and present their own evidence before the case is filed in court, saving the state from conducting “useless and expensive trials”, the judge said.

“A preliminary investigation without a subpoena being issued to the respondent is offensive to due process.”

The prosecutor also failed to spell out in the formal complaint the doctor’s alleged role in the abduction and illegal detention of the victim, the judge added.

Jun Castro told AFP his sister was released from a provincial jail in the country’s south on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Philippine National Police did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.

Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said at least 60 other people it considered “political prisoners” had been released by the courts on “procedural and substantive grounds” in recent months.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s government stepped up a crackdown on human rights defenders it accuses of being supporters of the communist insurgency – known as “red-tagging” – after ending peace talks with the rebels in 2017.

Palabay said the government had “red-tagged” and later arrested 1,161 people since Duterte began his presidency in 2016.

Another 427 accused of having links to the communist underground were murdered, allegedly by state-backed forces, she said.