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Philippine president urged to sign bill vs enforced disappearance

Publication Date : 19-10-2012


Lawmakers and human rights watchdogs yesterday urged Philippine President Benigno Aquino to immediately sign a bill penalising “enforced disappearances” to allow the government to go after those behind the abductions of activist Jonas Burgos, students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, and other people.

“Since the abductors of Jonas Burgos and other ‘desaparecidos’ continue to refuse to acknowledge the fate or whereabouts of their victims, they continue to commit the crime of enforced disappearance,” said Bayan Muna Party-list Representative Neri Colmenares, a principal author of the bill at the House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, the Senate and the House of Representatives approved the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Bill crafted by the bicameral conference committee, paving the way for its signing by the president.

It took more than 20 years before such a measure was finally ratified by both chambers of Congress.

The President refrained from making any commitment yet on the landmark measure. His spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, stressed that the Palace would prefer to study the legislation in its entirety before issuing a “comprehensive statement.”

“The president has not seen the bill. We have not seen the bill. All we have are statements coming from the several senators,” he told reporters in a Palace briefing. “The president does not wish to comment on anything he has not seen yet.”

Under the law, the president can sign a legislation or let it lapse into law.

First in Asia

Considered the first of its kind in Asia if enacted into law, the bill seeks to impose a penalty of life imprisonment, or from 20 years and one day to 40 years in prison, on a person convicted for enforced disappearance. It allows victims to seek compensation, restitution and rehabilitation.

Moreover, the bill seeks to outlaw secret detention facilities and requires detention centres to provide a periodically updated registry of all detained persons in the Philippines, a signatory to international conventions against enforced disappearances.

Colmenares, a human rights lawyer, said it was about time that the abductors of Burgos, Empeño, Cadapan and other activists “come forward and inform the families of their victims where these victims are.”

Otherwise, he said, the new measure, if enacted, “will pluck them from oblivion and extract from them the accountability and punishment they so richly deserve.”

Burgos was seized by a group of men and a woman at a department store on Commonwealth Avenue in 2007. He was dragged into a Toyota Revo vehicle whose licence plate was later traced to the Army’s 56th Infantry Battalion in Norzagaray, Bulacan.

Empeño and Cadapan, both students of the University of the Philippines, have been missing since the year before. Retired Army Major General Jovito Palparan and other soldiers have been charged in court for their abduction and are now being hunted.

Elements of crime

Colmenares cited the “refusal to acknowledge the fate or whereabouts of the victim” as among the elements of the crime of enforced disappearance. The others are “abduction, involvement of state or government or its agents, and the intent to victim of the protection of the law.”

Senator Francis Escudero said the new bill differed from the existing law against abduction because it requires no presentation of a victim’s body.

“In kidnapping, there’s either a body recovered or someone is known as being held hostage. In this case, the person is still missing,” he said.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups pressed the president to immediately sign the bill into law.

Its enactment would demonstrate the Philippine government’s commitment to address human rights abuses such as the abduction and killing by the security forces of activists, environmentalists and journalists, the HRW said.

“Enforced disappearances, often involving torture and extrajudicial killings, have been a blot on the Philippines’ human rights record since the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship,” Brad Adams, HRW Asia director, said in a statement.

“To this day, activists are still being abducted by the authorities and ‘disappeared.’ This law would be an important step toward ending these abuses,” he added.

Lacierda quashed speculations that this early, the president had reservations about the measure, pointing out that it had yet to be transmitted to the Palace.

“We have not seen the bill yet so it is unfair to conclude any reaction from the president. If he sees that, then we’ll let you know. But he has not yet seen the copy of the law itself or the bill itself,” he said.

The Palace was still smarting from the public backlash against the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which imposes a higher penalty for online libel. The law has been met with protests and hacking of government websites—acts that the President didn’t see coming when he signed it on September 18.

The Supreme Court has unanimously issued a 120-day temporary restraining order against the cyberlaw’s implementation.

Martial law experiences

Enforced disappearances were rampant during the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, when the military and police routinely rounded up activists and suspected communist supporters and rebels, the HRW said.

“The practice did not end with Marcos’s ouster in 1986. Many enforced disappearances occurred during the administration of President Gloria Arroyo. At least 11 activists have ‘disappeared’ since Aquino took office in 2010, according to local rights groups, though there are no allegations that the Aquino administration has direct responsibility,” it said.

Rep. Edcel Lagman described the crime as “an atrocious tool of the martial law regime to silence protesters and human rights advocates.”
He said it “continues to be employed by subsequent administrations after the end of the martial law regime.”

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima yesterday said her department was one with the nation “in eagerly anticipating its coming into law the soonest possible time.”

Brownie points

Its enactment, she said, would earn the Philippines brownie points from human rights advocates and experts, particularly those from the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC).

“We can be assured of the full support and approval from human rights advocates and experts, particularly those from the UNHRC,” said De Lima, who arrived from Geneva, Switzerland, where she headed the Philippine delegation to the 4th Periodic Report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

She said the bill was a “recognition of the injury and torment that victims and families of desaparecidos are subjected to, bearing in mind that enforced disappearance is undoubtedly one of the worst forms of human rights violations.”

The bill’s salient features are the following:

1.) The crime of enforced disappearance is generally imprescriptible as an exception to the statute of limitations.

2.) No amnesty can exempt any offender, either convicted or facing prosecution, from liability.

3.) No war or any public emergency can justify the suspension of the enforcement of the anti-disappearance law.

4.) Command responsibility makes a superior officer also culpable for violations of the law by subordinates.

5.) Subordinates are authorised to defy unlawful orders of superiors for the commission of enforced disappearance.

6.) A periodically updated registry of all detained persons is required in all detention centres.

7.) Secret detention facilities are prohibited.

8.) Compensation, restitution and rehabilitation of victims and kin are mandated.

9.) Gradation of penalties is prescribed with reclusion perpetua as the severest penalty.

10.) Human Rights organisations shall participate in the crafting of the necessary Implementing Rules and Regulations.

With a report from Christine O. Avendaño and Karen Boncocan


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