The Philippines has passed a landmark law that criminalises "enforced disappearances", a presidential spokeswoman said yesterday, in a move hailed by human-rights groups.
Under the new law, enforced disappearances - or abductions carried out by government forces - will be treated as a separate category to ordinary kidnapping and could invite up to life imprisonment as punishment. It means the military can also 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.
President Benigno Aquino approved the legislation late on Friday, spokeswoman Abigail Valte said amid a growing outcry over alleged abductions of activists and government critics by security forces.
The law also prohibits secret detention facilities and authorises the government to conduct "regular, unannounced … inspections of all places of detention and confinement".
Valte said both government employees and ordinary Philippine citizens 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 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", and the group urged the government to act quickly to enforce it.
"This law is a testament to the thousands of 'disappearance' victims since the Marcos dictatorship, whose long-suffering families are still searching for justice," HRW said.
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 the president at the time, 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 guerillas 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 guerillas at about 4,000 fighters, significantly down from more than 26,000 at its peak in the late 1980s.
The human-rights group Karapatan says more than 1,000 political activists and suspected supporters have disappeared since the 1972-1986 Marcos dictatorship, including more than 200 under Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It has documented 12 cases of enforced disappearance under Aquino.