By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — “The President should not wait a minute longer in enacting this bill into law.”
This was the statement issued by Desaparecidos, an organization of families of victims of enforced disappearances with the passage of the Anti-Enforced Disappearance bill by both the Senate and Congress, October 16. The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012, which penalizes the crime of enforced disappearance, was sent to the president for signature.
“A door opens for us, families of the disappeared, in seeking justice for our missing loved ones,” Mary Guy Portajada, Desaparecidos secretary general, said.
If enacted, the law would be the first to criminalize enforced disappearances in Asia, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 adopted the definition of enforced disappearance being used by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED). “Enforced disappearance” is the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the act penalizes violators with a life sentence or decades in prison. It also prohibits amnesty for violators and declares that the government cannot suspend the law even in times of war or public emergency.
The act also upholds command responsibility, stating that the commanding or superior officer of the unit or personnel implicated in an enforced disappearance case is just as liable as the person who carried out the crime.
It also deems unlawful secret detention facilities and directs the government to make a full inventory of all detention facilities in the Philippines. It orders the government to create a registry of every detainee, complete with all relevant details including information on who visited the detainee and how long the visit lasted.
The act also mandates and authorizes the governmental Commission on Human Rights “to conduct regular, independent, unannounced and unrestricted visits to or inspection of all places of detention and confinement.” It allocates 10 million pesos (approximately US$250,000) to the commission, which will be tasked with the initial implementation of the law.
Human Rights Watch noted that the act also makes the “order of battle” – a document prepared by the military identifying alleged threats and enemies – illegal, stating that “it cannot be invoked as a justifying or exempting circumstance.” Under the act, any person who receives an “order of battle” from their superiors “shall have the right to disobey it.” The international watchdog said many victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings have been listed or said to have been listed in such “orders of battle.”
Both Desaparecidos and Human Rights Watch called on Aquino to sign the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and transmit it to the Senate for ratification. On October 30, 2011, the Convention was finally enforced but the Philippine government failed to ratify it.
“It will be a year now since the enforcement of the Convention, and it is an opportune time for the Aquino government to ratify this international document,” Portajada said. She said that while domestic law will punish perpetrators in the country, the Convention ensures that the State will be held responsible for the abduction and disappearance of its citizens.”
“Congress has done a great job in taking the initiative to pass a law on enforced disappearances,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.
“Enforced disappearances, often involving torture and extrajudicial killings, have been a blot on the Philippines’ human rights record since the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship,” said Adams. “President Aquino can show his administration’s commitment to ending this black chapter of Philippine history. He can also assume a role as a regional leader on human rights.”
In Asia, only Japan has signed and ratified the Convention, placing Asia behind other regions of the world, according to Human Rights Watch.
Desaparecidos challenged the Aquino administration to arrest, prosecute and punish retired Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the crime of enforced disappearance.
Palparan was charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention in relation to the enforced disappearance of University of the Philippines (UP) students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. He and another suspect remain at large ten months after a Bulacan court issued warrants of arrest against them.
Protajada said that under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration, Karapatan documented 206 victims of enforced disappearances.
“To this day, activists are still being abducted by authorities and ‘disappeared.’ This law would be an important step towards ending these abuses,” Adams said.
Karapatan has documented 12 victims of enforced disappearance since Aquino assumed office.
“The law will remain a meaningless compilation of words, unless the Aquino government goes after, and swiftly punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime, mostly members of its own armed forces,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan.
In a separate statement, Anakbayan said “if Aquino is serious in upholding human rights, he should personally lead the search for desaparecidos.”
“We challenge Aquino to join the victims’ families, open up the camps and secret detention centers, dismantle AFP battalions responsible for abductions and disappearances, and send to jail generals responsible for enforced disappearances,” Vencer Crisostomo, chairman of Anakbayan, said.
For Portajada, whose father Armando Portajada Sr. has been missing since July 1987, “it remains to be seen if the bill will have its teeth against the deeply rooted state violence and impunity in the armed forces.”