(New York) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III should order the armed forces to cooperate with civilian authorities in arresting retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan and others charged with the enforced disappearance of two activists in 2006, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the Justice Department filed charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention in December 2011, Palparan and one co-accused, Sgt. Rizal Hilario, have evaded capture, while the other two have been transferred to military custody.
“President Aquino should get the message to the military that the years of protecting Palparan for grievous abuses are over,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Officers and soldiers alike should be on notice that if they block civilian authorities in arresting Palparan, they too will face legal consequences.”
Human Rights Watch said that President Aquino should make it clear that anyone – inside and outside the military – who obstructs the arrests will be held accountable for protecting Palparan, who is also accused of other abuses while he was an army division commander.
Immediately after the Justice Department brought charges, the police and the National Bureau of Investigations formed “tracker teams” to arrest Palparan and Hilario and transfer them to civilian custody.
Despite a one-million peso (US$23,000) reward for Palparan’s capture, civilian officials have told Human Rights Watch that they believe some military personnel and business owners, who benefitted from Palparan’s campaign against the communist New People’s Army, are protecting the retired general.
A group of active and retired military officials have publicly defended Palparan, denouncing what it called his “trial by publicity.” The group, in a statement to the media dated December 28, also warned of “demoralization in the soldiers’ ranks,” pointing out that Palparan and the others are accused of abuses allegedly committed while “leading operations against the communist insurgents in Central Luzon.”
There are concerns that the military may be interfering in the civilian judicial process, Human Rights Watch said. In December, the Regional Trial Court of Malolos, Bulacan province, which is hearing the case, granted the motion to transfer two of the accused who had earlier surrendered – Lt. Col. Felipe Antado and Staff Sergeant Edgardo Osorio – to military custody. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, in a January 9 letter to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, questioned the propriety of the transfer, pointing out that the lawyer who made the petition on behalf of an unnamed Intelligence and Security Group commanding officer is not the lawyer who represented Antado and Osorio during the preliminary investigation and in the initial hearings.
De Lima also noted that her department had not been given a copy of the court’s order and that nobody from the army informed her beforehand of the plan to file a motion to transfer. She said the army had also not informed the Justice Department of the whereabouts of Osorio and Antado. “As the primary prosecuting arm of the government, we are entitled to timely official information from the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] or the Philippine Army as to where the accused are presently confined and if they are confined at all,” de Lima said in her letter to Gazmin.
Palparan and the three others are accused of kidnapping and detaining activists Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño in 2006 while they reportedly conducted research in Central Luzon, where Palparan was an army division commander. The families of the two women filed a case in May 2011 and only then did the government start the process to prosecute Palparan and his co-accused. In the Philippines, the families of victims of abuses can employ private prosecutors to pursue cases.
A key witness in the case, Raymond Manalo, has also accused Palparan of ordering the abduction and torture of him and his brother Reynaldo in 2006. Raymond Manalo said that while in the custody of Palparan’s unit, he saw Cadapan and Empeno detained in a military camp. He said they told him how soldiers tortured and raped them. Manalo’s case against Palparan and several other military officials is pending before the Office of the Ombudsman.
In a sworn statement, Manalo recounted how he met Cadapan inside an army barracks: “I was tasked to clean the barracks. In one of the rooms, I saw a woman in chains. At first, I was forbidden to talk to her. On the third or fourth day, I managed to talk to the woman named Sherlyn. I gave her food. She told me that she had been abducted in Hagonoy, Bulacan, and that she suffered extreme torture. She said she wanted to go home and be with her parents. She was crying. She told me her full name was Sherlyn Cadapan, from Laguna [province].”
Manalo also recounted that he met Palparan and the other respondents in the military camp where soldiers chained, drugged, and beat up him and his brother. He also claimed to have witnessed the soldiers killing Manuel Merino, a farmer who was assisting Cadapan and Empeno in their field research. Palparan and the three other accused, however, are not charged for Merino’s death because, according to Edre Olalia, the lawyer for the families of Cadapan and Empeno, no Merino relative had come forward to pursue the case.
The Justice Department did not include rape in the charge because it considered Manalo’s testimony hearsay. It also said torture was not included because the Philippines’s anti-torture law was passed in 2009, three years after the alleged act was committed.
“It took five years after the alleged abuses for Palparan to be charged, but this is really due to the efforts of the victims’ families,” said Pearson. “The Justice Department needs to actively pursue all serious rights violations.”
When Palparan was a division commander, his troops were implicated in grave abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. He publicly admitted waging a campaign against the Communist movement by targeting groups and individuals he considered to be communist fronts or Communist Party supporters.
Palparan has denied allegations of involvement in unlawful killings, but he has also made numerous pronouncements attempting to justify such attacks. In June 2006, while still in command, Palparan told journalists that the killings were "being attributed to me, but I did not kill them. I just inspired [the triggermen]. We are not admitting responsibility here, what I'm saying is that these are necessary incidents."
“Palparan has become a symbol of the widespread lack of accountability for atrocities in the Philippines today,” Pearson said. “The Aquino administration can show a new direction for the country by ensuring Palparan’s prosecution.”