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Philippines criminalizes abductions by security forces

MANILA: The Philippines has passed landmark legislation that criminalizes state abductions, a presidential spokeswoman said yesterday, in a move hailed by human rights groups.
Under the new law “enforced disappearances” — abductions carried out by security forces usually targeting anti-government activists and critics — will be treated separately to kidnapping and offenders could face life in prison.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the new law, saying it was “the first of its kind in Asia and a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation.”
Under the legislation the military can no longer cite the so-called “order of battle” — a list of supposed communist insurgents that until now was used to justify holding a person.
The law also prohibits secret detention facilities and authorizes the government to conduct “regular, unannounced... inspections of all places of detention and confinement.”
Human rights group Karapatan says on its website it has documented 12 enforced disappearances since Aquino became president in July 2010, with more than 200 recorded during the rule of his predecessor Gloria Arroyo.
President Benigno Aquino approved the legislation late Friday, spokeswoman Abigail Valte said, amid a growing outcry over the abductions.
She said both government employees and ordinary people were now required to report cases of enforced disappearances.
“The important thing is that we now have a duty to report if we know of any case of enforced disappearances. It also provides for the creation of an updated list of all the people held in our detention facilities,” she said.
Human Rights Watch said: “This law is a testament to the thousands of ‘disappearance’ victims since the Marcos dictatorship, whose long-suffering families are still searching for justice.”
Congressman Edcel Lagman, who authored the bill, said the new law would force government officials who are accused of enforced disappearances, to report if they are holding anyone.
“The law seeks to end impunity of offenders even as it envisions a new... breed of military, police and civilian officials and employees who respect and defend the human rights and civil liberties of the people,” he said.
“Disappearances” of activists rose sharply after then-president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Although Marcos was toppled in a popular revolt in 1986, activist groups say the abductions still continue.
Communist guerrillas have been waging an armed rebellion in the Philippines since 1969 and more than 30,000 people have died in the conflict, according to the government.
The military estimates the current strength of the guerrillas at about 4,000 fighters, significantly down from more than 26,000 at its peak in the late 1980s.