Diciembre 8, 2006

Forced disappearances an ignored malaise in Philippines

23 November 2006

MANILA - Ghay Portajada was only 12 years old when her father, a labour leader, disappeared in 1987 after being abducted by gunmen outside a Philippine factory where he and employees were holding a picket.

Almost two decades later, Portajada still does not know for sure what has become of her father, Armando, who was 55 years old when he was seized by armed men in metro Manila’s Makati City on July 31, 1987.

“Sometimes, when I see someone who looks like my father, I run to him to check his face and make sure,” Portajada, spokeswoman for the Families of Desaparecidos for Justice (Desaparacidos), said. “The man might be my father. There’s still that hope.”

But Portajada admitted that sometimes, it was hard to keep the faith especially amid a growing number of extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances in the Philippines now.

Worse, an Asian human rights group said Philippine authorities were not investigating cases of forced disappearances, which could help families find missing relatives.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which recently released a report on a fact-finding mission in July, authorities such as the police “require a dead body in order to launch investigations.”

“This is a very significant problem,” Michael Anthony, a programme coordinator of the AHRC, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in a telephone interview from Hong Kong. “The people that are conducting these killings only need to ensure that the body of a person is never found to basically ensure that there are no effective investigations of any type into these events.”

Since the first case of a forced disappearance was documented in 1971 under the dictatorship of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, more than 1,800 people have been reported missing in the Philippines. Most are human rights advocates, leftist activists and labour laders.

Anthony said the issue of forced disappearance should be dealt with in the same urgency as political killings.

“The forced disappearance of even a single person is alarming,” he said. “While the killings are perhaps greater in number, forced disappearances are also a great concern, (especially with) the possibility of people still being alive when they disappeared.”

“We would hope that investigations would be able to find these people and surface them so to speak so that they are not killed,” added Anthony.

Portajada said the incidence of forced disappearances has again worsened since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001.

According to the local human rights group Karapatan, there are already 186 victims of forced disappearances in the past five years under Arroyo, up from just about 60 cases in eight years prior to 2001.

Increasing abductions

The increasing number of abductions coincide with the spate of extra-judicial killings that have been condemned by various international and local groups, including foreign chambers of commerce and businesses.

While Arroyo has denounced the current level of political violence in the country, her administration has also belittled warnings of a worsening human-rights situation in the country as mere propaganda by communist rebels.

The government has even tried to shift blame away from the military and police, the main suspects in the attacks, even before a police task force and a local civilian fact-finding commission complete their investigations.

“It is unfortunate that many extremist groups who are against the government are taking advantage of the situation to purge their ranks and kill innocent people,” presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said in a recent statement.

“It is equally unfortunate that it appears that rogue elements of the police or military have decided to take the law into their own hands,” he added.

Despite such attempts to clear soldiers and policemen, families of victims still believe that government security forces are conducting the abductions and killings as part of a systematic campaign to eliminate opposition to the government, especially critics belonging to leftist groups.

And this is exactly what Dee Batnag Ayroso tells her two children - an 11-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl - when they ask about their father, Honorio, a leftist activist missing since February 2002.

“I tell them that he was abducted by the military,” she said. “If they ask why, I tell them that because their father is an activist, and he exposes what the government is doing. It is clear to them that we have to fight what this government is doing.”

Ayroso, 38, said her husband was organizing for the leftist party-list group Bayan Muna when he and another activist Johnny Orcino were forcibly taken by gunmen in the northern province of Nueva Ecija.

A witness to the abduction has since gone into hiding, and no investigation was ever conducted into the disappearance.

It was not the first time for Honorio to be taken. In 1989, when he was still a student, he was seized with nine other colleagues by soldiers, who allegedly tortured them for 10 days before they were charged in court for allegedly being communist rebels.

Honorio and his nine colleagues were all later acquitted and released.

But Ayroso expressed fears that her husband would not be as lucky this time.

“When I recall his stories about his first abduction, the torture, then I remembered what he told me then that if he was taken again, he will no longer come out alive,” she said, her voice cracking and her eyes welling with tears.

“While I may know that maybe he is no longer coming back, it is difficult to accept that he is already dead,” she added.

Posted by marga at Diciembre 8, 2006 4:48 AM | TrackBack
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