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(Manila) – The new law that criminalizes enforced disappearances in the Philippines is the first of its kind in Asia and a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation, Human Rights Watch said today. President Benigno S. Acquino III signed the law today.

The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 closely reflects international legal standards on enforced disappearance. Although Congress passed the law in October, Aquino did not immediately sign it despite reports of new abductions of leftist activists. Enforced disappearances are defined as the detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. People held in secret are especially vulnerable to torture and other abuses, and their families suffer from lack of information.

“President Aquino and the Congress deserve credit for acting to end the scourge of enforced disappearances in the Philippines,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “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.”

The new law reflects longtime 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.

The law defines an enforced or involuntary disappearance 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 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 places such person outside the protection of the law.” This definition is derived from international human rights standards.

The law also prohibits secret detention facilities. 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.

“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.

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.

Human Rights Watch detailed some cases of disappearances in its 2010 report, “No Justice Just Adds to the Pain,” and in a video released earlier in 2012 in which family members of the disappeared call on President Aquino to live up to his promises of justice.

The Philippine government should also sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and transmit it to the Senate for prompt ratification. In Asia, only Japan has ratified the convention, although Laos, India, Indonesia, and Thailand have signed it.

In addition to signing the anti-disappearance law, Aquino is expected to soon sign the landmark reproductive-health bill recently passed by Congress. The bill aims to improve the lives of many Filipino women and to reduce the country’s high maternal mortality rate.

“President Aquino should be commended for these two important human rights laws, but too often new laws in the Philippines are followed by inaction,” Adams said. “Aquino now needs to demonstrate leadership to overcome the obstacles to these laws and ensure they are fully enforced.”

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