‘Desaparecidos’ and the threat of the Anti-Terror Law

AN increase in numbers of “desaparecidos” is one of the feared scenarios in the enforcement of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

“Desaparecidos” is the Spanish and Portuguese word for “disappeared people” or victims of forced disappearance. The victims are subjected to extrajudicial punishment wherein government elements abduct a person to vanish from public view. The victim is first kidnapped, and then illegally detained in a secret location, often tortured, and finally executed and the corpse hidden.

The UN Commission on Human Rights’ definition of enforced disappearance includes three elements: “deprivation of liberty against the will of the person; involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence; and refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.”

I almost became a desaparecido myself. I was part of the statistics of kidnap victims in the late 1990s, on August 23,1997 to be exact. I just came from my class from UP College of Law and on my way to the wake of Filipina comfort woman Lola Rosa Henson, I was abducted in Quezon City.

With a gun on my head, prayers kept me alive until I was released.

The perpetrators, who were killed one week later by the police, were ironically identified as former military men. I never knew the real reason behind that incident, but it only showed one thing: abuses of the police and military are not far-fetched.

The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 was signed into law on December 21, 2012 by then President Benigno Aquino III. 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.

Those guilty of enforced disappearances before the law was passed can still be prosecuted if they continue refusing to disclose the whereabouts of the victim. It was considered as “a testament to the thousands of ‘disappearance’ victims since the Marcos dictatorship, whose long-suffering families are still searching for justice.”

However, critics warned that the broad offenses cited in the RA 11479, or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 could make it easier for the government to commit human rights violations, including the occurrences of desaparecidos There are now at least 27 petitions filed before the Supreme Court assailing the constitutionality of the new law, which took effect on July 18, 2020 after being signed by President Duterte on July 3.

The petition led by Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) noted that the crime of terrorism is so vaguely defined that it fails to give adequate notice of the precise acts that would constitute the offense and gives law enforcers unbridled discretion in its application.

The definition is also so broad that it covers legitimate exercises of constitutional rights.

The petitioners stressed that in determining whether certain conduct falls thereunder, the said provisions focus on the actor’s intent, but not the actual conduct itself nor its effect.

The only qualification aiding the public, the law enforcer and, ultimately, the court, in deciding whether an act would count as terrorism is the purported intention behind it.

They underscored that an ambiguous law lends itself to abuse or the exercise of undue discretion by those enforcing or interpreting the same.

Arbitrary arrests would be the necessary effect of enforcing an amorphous provision since the law enforcer would be called on to exercise his own discretion in determining whether a particular overt act is prohibited under the law.

Another petition was filed by lawyers from the UP College of Law, led by former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.

They said that the assailed law represents possibly the greatest legal threat to civil liberties already challenged by severe restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

They argued that it is “mired by vagueness and overbreadth that repress protected speech, justifying its facial invalidation.”

Carpio-Morales said,  “In its fight against terrorism, the government must not be the source of terror and impunity itself. We must never let reason continue to escape us.”

As the struggle for truth and justice by the families of the desaparecidos continue, Filipinos must be vigilant against the ominous threat of State-sponsored suppression of dissent.

Kule is the monicker of Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of UP Diliman. Atty. Dennis Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.


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