Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - It will soon be a law. Abduction by the state or by its agents is a crime. The Philippines becomes the first country in Asia to define enforced disappearance as a separate criminal offence.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is set to sign Republic Act No. 10350, or the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act, according to presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda and the author of the bill, Albay Representative Edcel Lagman.
Lagman's brother, Hermon, a labour leader and human rights lawyer, disappeared 34 years ago, at the height of President Ferdinand Marcos' martial rule.
Lagman said that under the new law, enforced disappearance would be a distinct crime separate from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, murder, or any other crime.
The law says that enforced disappearance is committed when a citizen is deprived of liberty by the state or agents of the state, and when information on the whereabouts of the missing is concealed or denied.
It would also goad security officers into being better public servants who respect human rights, according to Lagman.
"The law [would] end the impunity of offenders," Lagman said. "[I]t envisions a new or a better breed of military, police and civilian officials and employees who respect and defend the human rights and civil liberties of the people they are sworn to protect and serve and who observe the rule of law at all times."
Lagman said the enforced disappearance 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.
The families of "desaparecidos"-people seized by the state and never seen again-hailed the new law as a "timely and meaningful Christmas gift."
Best known among the disappeared are University of the Philippines students Karen Empe?o and Sherlyn Cadapan, who were seized by gunmen believed to be military agents from their house in Hagonoy town, Bulacan province, on June 26, 2006, and agriculturist Jonas Joseph Burgos, seized by gunmen also believed to be soldiers from a restaurant inside a shopping mall in Quezon City on April 28, 2007.
All three were involved with Alyansa ng Magbubukid ng Bulacan (Alliance of Bulacan Farmers), a local chapter of the militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Farmers Movement of the Philippines).
Their parents have brought criminal charges against retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, former commander of the 7th Infantry Division based in Nueva Ecija province.
Palparan went into hiding after being ordered to stand trial by a court in Bulacan early this year.
It is not clear whether the new law could be applied to the prosecution of Palparan, who is accused of torture, rape, serious physical injuries, arbitrary detention, maltreatment of prisoners, grave threats and coercion.
Right to truth
The law also upholds the right to truth, he said.
It 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 centres must have such a register.
The new law, Lagman said, "is a comprehensive legislation that does not only impose penal sanctions, but also provides restorative justice, pecuniary compensation to victims and their families, restitution of honour, and psychosocial rehabilitation for both victims and offenders."
In a statement, the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) welcomed the new law and described it as "a timely and meaningful Christmas gift."
But the group said it would remain vigilant and monitor the enforcement of the new law.
The group said greater challenges may be expected, but it would wait for the promulgation of the implementation rules for the new law.
FIND said it hoped the disappearance law would not go the way of the torture law, which it described as "more honoured in the breach," meaning the torture law is not enforced, not honourably ignored than followed-the meaning of the phrase.
FIND urged Congress to monitor the enforcement of the law.
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