First law of its kind in Asia, says Human Rights Watch
MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The “desaparecidos” bill, or the bill criminalizing enforced disappearances, has been signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Aquino signed the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 (Republic Act 10350) on Friday.
In a statement, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said: “The law seeks to end impunity of offenders even as it 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.”
Enforced disappearance is defined as "the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with authorization or support from the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared."
The elements for enforced disappearance to become a crime are: the victim is deprived of liberty; the perpetrator is the State or agents of the State; and, information on the whereabouts of the victim is concealed or denied.
“These principal elements make enforced disappearance a distinct crime separate from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, murder or any common crime,” Lagman explained.
Lagman was the principal author of the bill in the lower House.
He added: “R.A. 10350 is a comprehensive legislation that does not only impose penal sanctions but also provides for restorative justice, pecuniary compensation to victims and their families, restitution of honor, and psychosocial rehabilitation for both victims and offenders.”
Lagman said: “No political instability, threat of war, state of war or any public emergencies can justify the suspension of the enforcement of RA 10350.”
'First of its kind in Asia'
In a statement, the human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the new law "is the first of its kind in Asia and a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation."
“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.”
HRW said "the new law reflects long-time recommendations by human rights organizations to the government to address unacknowledged detentions. Anyone convicted of committing an enforced disappearance faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and may not receive an amnesty. Superior officers who order or are otherwise implicated in a disappearance face the same penalty as those who directly carried out the crime. The government cannot suspend the law even in times of war or public emergency."
"A crucial provision of the law says that those accused of forced disappearances may not invoke 'orders of battle' – military documents that identify alleged enemies – as justification or an exempting circumstance. Many victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines have been listed or said to have been listed in such “orders of battle.” The law specifically allows a person who receives an illegal order to commit a disappearance to disobey it," HRW added.
Secret detention facilities banned
The law also prohibits secret detention facilities, HRW said. "The government is to make a full inventory of all detention facilities in the Philippines and create a registry of every detainee, complete with all relevant details including who visited the detainee and how long the visit lasted. It also mandates and authorizes the governmental Commission on Human Rights 'to conduct regular, independent, unannounced and unrestricted visits to or inspection of all places of detention and confinement.'”
Human rights organizations are encouraged to assist the Justice Department in proposing rules and regulations for enforcement, HRW said.
“Effective enforcement of this new law by the Philippine government will deter enforced disappearances and address the deep-seated problem of impunity for human rights abusers,” Adams said.
HRW said: "Under President Ferdinand Marcos, enforced disappearances were rampant, as the military and police routinely rounded up activists and suspected communist rebels and supporters. The practice did not end with Marcos’s ouster in 1986. Many enforced disappearances occurred during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Several activists have 'disappeared' since Aquino took office in 2010, according to local rights groups, though there are no allegations that these were ordered by Aquino or other members of his government." -- with a report from Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News