MANILA, Philippines – The families and victims of enforced disappearances, such as Jonas Burgos, are now one step closer to attaining justice.
President Benigno Aquino III signed the “Desaparecidos Bill” into law Friday, December 21, according to Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.
The “Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012” — the first of its kind in Asia — makes the crime of enforced disappearance punishable by life imprisonment.
The law states that a crime of enforced disappearance is considered committed if 1) a victim is deprived of liberty; 2) the perpetrator is the State or agents of the State; and 3) information on the whereabouts of the victim is concealed or denied.
It makes enforced disappearance a crime distinct from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, murder or any common crime.
Human Rights Watch lauded the Aquino government for the enactment of the landmark law.
“President Aquino and the Congress deserve credit for acting to end the scourge of enforced disappearances in the Philippines,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“This law is a testament to the thousands of ‘disappearance’ victims since the Marcos dictatorship, whose long-suffering families are still searching for justice. The challenge now is for the government to move quickly to enforce the new law,” he added.
The principal author of the bill, Albay Rep Edcel Lagman, earlier made a premature announcement of the signing, saying that Malacañang sources had informed him that the President already affixed his signature on the bill Wednesday, December 19.
Lagman’s brother, Hermon, went missing during the martial law regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
A crucial provision of the law declares an “order of battle” illegal. An order of battle is a list created by the military and the police of persons and groups perceived to be enemies of the state and considered “legitimate targets as combatants.”
The order of battle has been part of the government’s security apparatus since Marcos’ martial law regime.
Rep Neri Colmenares of leftist party-list group Bayan Muna noted that those who were found guilty of committing the crime of enforced disappearance before the law was passed can still be prosecuted if they continue refusing to disclose the whereabouts of the victim.
“Now [retired Brig Gen Jovito] Palparan, [Brig Gen] Gen. (Eduardo) Año and their subordinates can be prosecuted for the abduction of Jonas Burgos, and others who have remained missing until now,” Colmenares said in a statement Thursday.
Palparan and Año are being linked to the abduction of Burgos, who has been missing since 2007. (Read: Why would the Army abduct Jonas Burgos?). Palparan is also being accused of being responsible for the “disappearance” of two UP students.
The Commission on Appointments on Wednesday, December 19, deferred the confirmation of Año as a one-star general because of the Burgos case. He was recently appointed chief of the Intelligence Service, Armed Forces of the Philippines (Isafp).
Palparan, on the other hand, remains at large, despite a standing warrant of arrest and a P2-M bounty on his head.
Other key provisions of the law are:
- Recognizing the right to communication of any person deprived of liberty to inform his or her family, friend, relative or lawyer or human rights groups about his or her whereabouts and condition;
- Requiring concerned public officers or private individuals to immediately issue a written certification to an inquiring person or entity on the presence or absence of the disappeared or provide information on his or her whereabouts;
- Providing free access to a periodically updated register of all detained or confined persons to those who have legitimate interest in the information recorded in the register which the Act requires to be maintained in all detention facilities;
- Holding liable the immediate commanding officer of the military unit or the immediate senior police official for acts that led to the commission of enforced disappearance by his or her subordinates;
- Requiring courts and government agencies to prioritize proceedings related to the issuance of writs of habeas corpus, amparo and habeas data;
- Mandating investigating officials or employees who learn that the subject of their investigation is a victim of enforced disappearance to disclose such information to his or her family, lawyer or human rights organization;
- The bill imposes a penalty of life sentence equivalent to 20 years and one day to 40 years imprisonment to perpetrators of enforced disappearances.
The Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) welcomed the law but stressed it is only the first step in providing justice to all desaparecidos.
“Having learned lessons from the implementation or non-implementation of R.A. 9745 (Anti-Torture Act of 2009), we are determined to be more vigilant, proactive and to comply with the law’s mandate to help “ensure the full dissemination” of the anti-enforced disappearance law and its implementing guidelines to the public, more particularly to its principal implementers,” FIND co-chairperson Nilda Sevilla said in a statement.
The law also provides restitution and compensation to victims and next-of-kin, as well as psychosocial rehabilitation of both victims and offenders.
According to FIND, there are a total of 1838 cases of enforced disappearance in the Philippines since Martial Law. A total of 1,147 are still missing. At least 256 were found dead while 435 have resurfaced alive.
Here’s the full text of the bicameral committee conference report on the bill before it was signed into a law: