The new law, the first of its kind in Asia, imposes a punishment of life imprisonment on those directly involved in the crime of enforced disappearance as well as on superior officers who order or are otherwise implicated in a disappearance.
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – “It’s a small relief,” Belith Batralo, whose brother Cesar has been missing, said of the enactment of a law criminalizing the practice of enforced disappearance.
Republic Act No. 10350 or the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 was signed by President Benigno Aquino III, December 21. The law makes enforced disappearance a distinct crime, separate from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, or murder.
Cesar, a consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), was taken by suspected state agents exactly six years before the law was passed. He is one of the more than 200 victims of enforced disappearance under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“Our nightmare continues for as long as he has not yet been found,” Belith told Bulatlat.com in an interview. She lamented how they would celebrate Christmas without her older brother. With her was Cesar’s daughter Gabriela, now 11 years old.
The law defines enforced disappearance as the “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed 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 places such person outside the protection of the law.” The definition is derived from the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Human rights group Karapatan attributed the enactment of the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Law to the “painstaking, persevering, militant and unwavering efforts for justice of the relatives of desaparecidos, human rights groups and people’s organizations.”
Belith recalled how she and other members of Desaparecidos, an organization of relatives of victims of enforced disappearance, lobbied for the passage of the bill. “Aquino then was still a senator when we first went to the Senate.”
Mrs. Edith Burgos, mother of missing activist Jonas, deemed that Aquino signed the law because of local and international pressure from human rights groups and supporters.
The new law, the first of its kind in Asia, imposes a punishment of life imprisonment to those directly involved in the crime of enforced disappearance as well as on superior officers who order or are otherwise implicated in a disappearance. Perpetrators of such crime are also prohibited from receiving any form of amnesty.
The law cannot be suspended even during periods of political instability, or when there is a threat of war, state of war, or any public emergency.
A provision of the law states that those accused of enforced disappearances may not invoke “orders of battle” – military documents that identify alleged enemies – as justification or an exempting circumstance.
The law also requires public officers to give inquiring citizens full information about people under their custody. It also requires investigating officials who learn that the people they are investigating are victims of enforced disappearance to relay the information to their families, lawyers and concerned human rights groups.
The law also provides free access to the updated register of detained or confined people to those who have a legitimate interest in the data. All detention centers must have such a register.
Implementing the law
For Mrs. Burgos, the law “brings hope, somehow.” She quickly added, however: “But we cannot relax. We have to be vigilant.”
Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general, challenged the Aquino government to file charges against all perpetrators of enforced disappearances from Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. to Gen. Eduardo Año.
Palparan is charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention for the enforced disappearance of University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño while Año is implicated in the abduction of Jonas Burgos.
Mrs. Burgos said she has been contemplating on using the law to file charges against the abductors of her son who has been missing since April 28, 2007. In June 2011, Mrs. Burgos filed charges of arbitrary detention or possibly murder against several military officers for the abduction of Jonas.
“I’m thinking of dropping the arbitrary detention and replace it with the crime of enforced disappearance,” Mrs. Burgos said. “Enforced disappearance is a continuing crime.”
Still, Mrs. Burgos could not hide her disappointment with Aquino. “It bewilders me why he [Aquino] is like that. Why would he appoint Año as Isafp chief?”
Año was sworn in by Aquino as the new chief of the Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on December 3. Mrs. Burgos strongly opposed the promotion and in a recent Senate hearing, the promotion of Año has been deferred by the Commission on Appointments.
“He was the only one sitting [among all the military officials promoted],” Mrs. Burgos said, describing the scene at the Senate. “That is nothing compared to what he did to my son.”
The same goes for Mrs. Concepcion Empeño, mother of Karen. “I consider the signing into law of the Anti-enforced Disappearance bill as a gift this Christmas,” Mrs. Empeño said. “The next step is to implement the law effectively.”
Asked if she would file charges in violation of the new law, Mrs. Empeño said it is a possibility but she has yet to consult her lawyers.
In a statement, the Human Rights Watch called the new law “a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation [enforced disappearance].”
“Effective enforcement of this new law by the Philippine government will deter enforced disappearances and address the deep-seated problem of impunity for human rights abusers,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.
The Human Rights Watch called on the Aquino administration to also sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and transmit it to the Senate for prompt ratification. According to the watchdog, only Japan has so far ratified the convention in Asia.
For Karapatan’s Palabay, scrapping Oplan Bayanihan, the counterinsurgency program of the Aquino administration, will end enforced disappearances and all forms of human rights violations.
The group has documented 12 cases of enforced disappearances under the Aquino government.
“Commitment to human rights is more than just the mere enactment of laws, PR stunts and rehashed storylines; it is about promoting, protecting and working towards full realization of human rights by holding accountable the state perpetrators, by putting a stop to all violations, and by a comprehensive and genuine reform of all legislative, judicial and executive mechanisms that impede the rights of the people, especially the poor and marginalized sectors,” Palabay said.