“DAYS have turned into weeks and weeks into months. We continue to seek justice and hope the day will soon come when we stop counting, and we worry no more.”
Thus declared Eli Capuyan, brother of Dexter Capuyan, an indigenous people’s rights activist who was abducted along with Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus last April 28, 2023 in Taytay, Rizal. Both were former student leaders of the University of the Philippines Baguio.
They are now considered “desaparecidos” which is the Spanish and Portuguese word for “disappeared people” or victims of forced disappearance.
During the Pandesal Forum of Kamuning Bakery, Eli Capuyan, and other families of desaparecidos stressed that the enforced disappearances are clear violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to life, liberty, and security of person, as well as the right to due process and a fair trial.
The “International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances” or “Desaparecidos Day” has been observed every August 30 annually since 2011.
The United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights defined desaparecidos to be of three elements: (a) deprivation of liberty against the will of a person; (b) involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence; and (c) refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.
The UN said that enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared but also affects the community as a whole.
The UN added that once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances are also perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents.
The UN identifies as particular concerns (a) the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses, and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance; (b) the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations; (c ) and the widespread impunity for enforced disappearance.
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (which took effect on December 23, 2010) states that, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian population, a “forced disappearance” qualifies as a crime against humanity. It gives victims’ families the right to seek reparations, and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones. The Philippines has not yet ratified the convention.
Data from the human rights group Karapatan and FIND indicate that there were between 950 to 1,000 desaparecidos during the late dictator’s term, 821 during Cory Aquino’s presidency, 39 under the term of Ramos, 26 under the Estrada administration, 206 during Arroyo’s term, 29 during Noynoy Aquino’s administration, and 20 under Duterte’s term.
Under the present administration, there are already eight desaparecidos, including Capuyan and de Jesus abducted on April 28, 2023 in Taytay, Rizal; Elena Pampoza and Elgene Mungcal abducted July 3 in Tarlac; Ariel Badiang abducted February 7 in Budkidnon; Lyn Grace Martullinas, Renel delos Santos and Denald Mailen abducted April 19 in Negros Occidental.
Peasant activist Jonas Burgos was abducted on April 28, 2007 in Quezon City during the Arroyo presidency.
Coincidentally, Burgos, De Jesus and Capuyan were abducted on the same day but 16 years apart.
On February 2, 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the 2013 findings of the Court of Appeals that ruled the military and the government responsible for the disappearance of Burgos.
The families of de Jesus and Capuyan have filed separate petitions for habeas corpus at the Court of Appeals.
The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 was signed into law on December 21, 2012 by then President Noynoy Aquino. The law makes the crime of enforced disappearance punishable by life imprisonment. The law treats enforced disappearances as a violation of human rights and a crime separate from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, and murder.
Critics warned that the broad offenses cited in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 or R.A.11479 could make it easier for the government to commit human rights violations, including the occurrences of desaparecidos, suppressing lawful dissent, and principled advocacy.
The law will galvanize “red-tagging” that has often been directed towards individuals and organizations critical of the government, who are labeled “communist” or “terrorist” regardless of their actual beliefs or affiliations.
The “Bantayog ng mga Desaparecido” is a monument unveiled on July 13, 1994, in Baclaran Church to honor the victims of the Marcos dictatorship. The monument depicts a woman carrying a torch and a child holding a picture of his missing father.
As the struggle for truth and justice by the families of the desaparecidos continues, Filipinos must be vigilant against the ominous threat of state-sponsored suppression of dissent.
(Peyups is the moniker of the University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)
(photo : desaparecidos artwork by Toym Imao)