The recent passage by both Houses of Congress of the Anti Enforced Disappearance Bill, which seeks to define and punish the crime of enforced disappearance as a distinct criminal offense is a welcome development.
The bill is potentially the first of its kind in Asia and would undoubtedly be hailed as a victory by those who have, for decades, advocated for its passage, including the families of so-called ‘desaparecidos’ who have been missing since the Martial Law period.
According to Justice Secretary Leila De Lima: “By imposing the maximum penalty of reclusion perpetua, and by providing for the entitlement of victims and their kin to compensation, restitution and rehabilitation, this law shall serve as a recognition of the injury and torment that victims and families of desaparecidos are subjected to, bearing in mind that enforced disappearance is undoubtedly one of the worst forms of human rights violations.”
Senator Francis ‘Chiz’ Escudero is the chairman of the Senate committee on justice and human rights and principal authority of the SBN 2817 or an Act Defining and Penalizing Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.
”Involuntary or enforced disappearance is now a crime punishable with life imprisonment after the Senate unanimously approved on Tuesday the bicameral conference committee report on Senate Bill 2817,” Escudero said.
Enforced or involuntary disappearance is defined in the bill 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 act of involuntary disappearance is not yet considered a crime under our existing laws. We bear witness to cases of forced disappearances, and more often, these cases are left in oblivion without putting those persons responsible for the commission of the disappearances accountable,” Escudero said.
Escudero said the bill also provides that prosecution of persons responsible for the commission of enforced disappearance shall not be prescribed unless the victim surfaces alive, in which case the prescription period shall be 25 years starting from the date of reappearance.
The bill also mandates the expeditious disposition of habeas corpus and amparo proceedings and immediate compliance with any release order by virtue of such proceedings.
“There must be no compromise on strong legislation with effective corrective penal measures, even if it would mean tilting the balance much more in favor of individual rights and human dignity. There should be enough of desaparecidos, because enforced disappearances have emotionally, mentally and physically displaced mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, children. These disappearances have caused us to be put under the tight watch of local and international rights groups and even foreign governments” the senator said.
Once enacted into law, perpetrators of involuntary disappearance will be meted the penalty of reclusion perpetua or life sentence which is equivalent to 20 years and one day to 40 years imprisonment.
Within six months after the measure is enacted, all related government agencies are mandated to submit an updated inventory of all officially recognized and controlled detention facilities and the list of detainees under their respective jurisdictions.
The measure also prohibits the issuances of ‘orders of battle’, official or otherwise, by the military, police or any law enforcement agency to justify an enforced or involuntary disappearance.
The bill awaits the signature of President Aquino, according to Escudero.