Philippine President Aquino III signs new law on abductions by armed forces and police

Philippine President Aquino III signs new law on abductions by armed forces and police

Manila : Philippines | Dec 22, 2012 at 8:32 AM PST
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President Benigno Aquino III signed into law a bill that imposes harsh penalties for any abductions by the military and security forces. The Philippines have long been notorious for abducting people suspected of anti-government activities.

Human Rights Watch hailed the law, calling it “the first of its kind in Asia and a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation.” Aquino campaigned on promises to improve human rights but since his election in 2010 many see his record as mixed on the issue. The practice of kidnapping political opponents carried on long after the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos made extensive use of the practice during a period of martial law. When democracy was restored in 1986 the practice still continued but on a much less extensive scale. Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance, based in Manila, lists more than 2,200 persons disappeared since 1985 due to actions of security forces or other government-linked agents.

Carlose Zarate, of the National Union of People's Lawyers, a group representing people who claim to have been abducted, said: "It is a way for the authorities to short-circuit our laws and Constitution. If they suspect someone is part of an underground organization but they don’t think the case will prosper in court, they abduct them. In a lot of the cases, the victims are innocent civilians who are suspected of having links to underground groups."

The new president is himself the son of an opposition politician assassinated during the rule of Marcos and of the former president Corazon Aquino who lead the uprising that drove Marcos out of power. Even so, there have been 17 documented disappearances under Aquino's rule. While bad enough, this is a big drop from the more than 300 cases alleged during the reign of Gloria Arroyo the previous president.

Even though there is a new law, many doubt that it will be enforced. Even if there are convictions it may be difficult to carry out any sentences. A notorious case is that of Jovito Palparan, nicknamed t"The Butcher" during his two decades of military service. The retired general was indicted in December 2011 for the abduction in 2006 of two young leftist university student activists. A statement filed in court noted that the women were kept chained in a barracks and periodically tortured and subject to sexual assaults by soldiers under the general's command. A lawyer for the victims' families said: “The girls narrated the circumstances of their abduction to our witness. He saw them being tortured in a restroom. It was a horrible account of physical and sexual abuse.” There has been a nationwide hunt for the general and a large reward for his capture but he remains at large and is even supported by prominent politicians and members of the military. The lawyer continued: :“It is immensely difficult to prosecute these kinds of cases. I don’t think this new law alone will make prosecution any easier. There must be a strong demonstration to the security forces that they can no longer get away with this. So far, the administration has not done that.”

The new law defines an enforced disappearance as an abduction or "any other form of deprivation of liberty" of a person by state officials or their agents who subsequently conceal the person's fate or whereabouts. According to human rights groups, those abducted are often kept in a network of "safe houses". They are often tortured and even killed. In contrast to the U.S. practice in which the president is legally allowed to designate people as proper targets for assassination by drones, the Philippine law prohibits the military from listing people as "enemies of the state" thus making them "legitimate targets as combatants", even though they are not formally charged with a crime. The law cannot be suspended even in wartime and superior officers found responsible are to be equally penalized with those carrying out the actions.

The Philippines has a long-standing Maoist insurgency led by the Communist Party of the Philippines. The armed wing is the New People's Army but there are also political components including members of the legislature and many activists. As well, there are several separatist Islamic groups who want an independent Islamic area in Mindanao the large southern island.

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