Rights groups, Justice Secretary push for bill to criminalize enforced disappearance

By RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — With the filing of charges against state security forces in relation to the enforced disappearances of University of the Philippines (UP) students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan and the update on the case of another missing activist Jonas Burgos, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and human rights groups reiterated the call to pass a law criminalizing enforced disappearances.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearance defines enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty 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 place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

Amid calls from international organizations, the Philippine government has not yet ratified the United Nations Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance. The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on Dec. 20, 2006. Fifty-seven countries have signed the convention. For it to be enforced, it should be ratified as well by the legislatures of at least 20 countries.

“Enforced disappearance is among the worst, if not the worst, form of human rights violations. It gives rise to multiple human rights violations such as torture, rape,” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said in a media briefing during the filing of charges against retired Major Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. and other military personnel for the abduction of two UP students.

Sugar Calubad lights a candle for her missing father and grandfather.(Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea / bulatlat.com)

The Convention obliges State parties to enact legislations criminalizing enforced disappearance. It states that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.The Convention also deems the widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity.

“The crime of enforced disappearance is not yet considered a crime under the Revised Penal Code,” de Lima said. “We are pushing for the passage of the bill. We must hold accountable all those doing this,” she added.

At the 15th Congress, three bills have been filed at the Lower House penalizing the crime of enforced disappearance: House Bill 0223 authored by Rep. Erin Tanada, House Bill 0098 authored by Rep. Edcel Lagman and Tanada and House Bill 3046 filed by Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, Gabriela Women’s Party, Kabataan Party, ACT Teachers Party and Rep. Rufus Rodriguez. The bills have been referred to the Committee on Justice.

The anti-enforced disappearance bill was first filed during the eight Congress and was refiled in the succeeding Congresses. During the 13th and 14th Congresses, the bill was approved for third and final reading but the Senate failed to act on it.

Lorena Santos, deputy secretary general of Desaparecidos, an organization of relatives of victims of enforced disappearance, said they have been waiting for the passage of the bill. “President Benigno Aquino III’s allies in Congress said the bill is among the priorities. We challenge them to prove it,” Santos, whose father Leo Velasco is also missing, said.

According to Desaparecidos, more than 200 became victims of enforced disappearance during the nine-year rule of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Under the Aquino administration, the group said that five have already been missing.

The bills pending at the House of Representatives uphold the non-derogability of the right against enforced disappearance. No justification may be invoked to commit the crime. All of the bills also institute liability of commanding officers or superiors for failure to prevent, discontinue or uncover enforced disappearance. There are also provisions for compensation, restitution and rehabilitation.

In the absence of any law criminalizing enforced disappearance, state security forces proven to have participated or directed the crime could only be charged with kidnapping, torture, physical injury, and other crimes punishable under the Revised Penal Code.

In the case of Jonas Burgos, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) recommended the filing of kidnapping charges against Lt. Harry Baliaga who has been identified by witnesses as among those who abducted the activist.

In an earlier statement, Mary Guy Portajada, Desaparecidos secretary general, explained that filing kidnapping charges alone “eliminates the political motive of the state forces to disappear a person.”

Meanwhile, on the abduction of Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, charges filed against suspected perpetrators include rape, serious physical injuries, arbitrary detention, maltreatment of prisoners, grave threats, grave coercion, among others.

“While with enforced disappearance, a person is disappeared for political reasons by state security forces; thus both state security forces and the commander in chief will be held responsible,” Portajada said.

“It is very important that the crime of enforced disappearance be eliminated from the dictionary,” De Lima said. ()

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