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Palparan and the ‘desaparecidos’: ‘Nunca Más’

Retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan wants to have his cake and eat it too. If he truly wishes to avoid “trial by publicity,” he should surrender to the courts and there face the music. Otherwise, he would have evaded trial altogether, before both the courts of justice and before the court of public opinion. In fact, it is most telling that he stands charged only now for a 2006 incident, and merely with kidnapping and serious illegal detention for what are essentially “enforced disappearances.”

Lest people forget, “desaparecidos” entered the jargon of human rights only in the 1970s. While dissidents may have “disappeared” earlier in history, it was only in the 1970s that the phenomenon emerged in Latin America as part of the strategy of repression by dictators, almost at the same time that it did in the Philippines when we were under martial law. The Latinos called it desaparecidos, while we called it “salvaging.” (I recall a foreign human rights intern who later published an essay on this strange term, “salvaging,” that he encountered during his summer in the Philippines.)

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The phenomenon changed linguistic practices as well. Hitherto, “to disappear” had been an intransitive verb, but today it can be used transitively as well. Whereas before we would say that Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño have disappeared, today the more accurate phraseology, one that captures the essence of disappearances, would say that Sherlyn and Karen “were disappeared.” The perpetrators have disappeared them, rather than made them disappear.

Disappearances exploit the law itself to short-circuit our justice system and frustrate the law’s remedies and safeguards. The usual remedy is the writ of habeas corpus (Latin for “You have the body”), by which a court commands government to produce the prisoner so that the court may rule on the legality of his arrest and custody. With disappearances, the government’s security forces can merely shrug off the habeas corpus petition by simply denying that the person was ever in their custody. The Court of Appeals, when it initially threw out the habeas corpus petition explained: “[T]he courts have limited powers, means and resources to conduct an investigation.”

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This brings us to the second lesson. That it took more than five years for the criminal case to be filed reminds us why we must choose government leaders who have the political will to run after the evil men who in the first place devised and eventually carried out the desaparecido strategy of neutralizing dissidents. We cannot rely solely upon the courts to run after criminals. We need the support of the Executive Branch, with its investigative and intelligence network, to ferret them out.

Thus the initial treatment of habeas corpus petition filed by the families of the two University of the Philippines activists, Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño. At 2 a.m. on June 26, 2006, they were seen being herded “tied and blindfolded” by “armed men wearing bonnets” and boarded on a jeep. The Court of Appeals initially threw out the case, saying that “habeas corpus is not the appropriate remedy” since there was “no strong evidence that the missing persons are in the custody of the respondents.” When the respondent military officers reported that neither Sherlyn nor Karen was in their custody, they had thus made a proper return upon the writ.

The Court of Appeals reversed that finding only after the victims’ families moved to reconsider and likewise petitioned for a writ of amparo, a new remedy created by then Chief Justice Reynato Puno in 2007 to confront precisely this problem of deniability in desaparecido cases. The puzzle was solved by the eyewitness testimony of Raymond Manalo who, together with his brother Reynaldo, was kidnapped by the military. They both managed to escape and lived to tell their tale.

The Supreme Court would summarize his testimony: “The next day, Raymond’s chains were removed and he was ordered to clean outside the barracks. … He was also ordered to clean inside the barracks. In one of the rooms therein, he met Sherlyn Cadapan from Laguna. She told him that she was a student of the University of the Philippines and was abducted in Hagonoy, Bulacan. She confided that she had been subjected to severe torture and raped. She was crying and longing to go home and be with her parents. During the day, her chains were removed and she was made to do the laundry.”

“After a week, Reynaldo was also brought to Camp Tecson. Two days from his arrival, two other captives, Karen Empeño and Manuel Merino, arrived. Karen and Manuel were put in the room with ‘Allan’ whose name they later came to know as Donald Caigas, called ‘master’ or ‘commander’ by his men in the 24th Infantry Battalion. Raymond and Reynaldo were put in the adjoining room. At times, Raymond and Reynaldo were threatened, and Reynaldo was beaten up. In the daytime, their chains were removed, but were put back on at night. They were threatened that if they escaped, their families would all be killed.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings called Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s response to this problem “a passivity bordering on abdication of responsibility.” The recent transfer of Palparan’s co-accused from civilian to military custody is worrisome because it shows a persistent tendency to see this case as if it were business as usual, amid a fear that any undue attention will amount to unequal treatment. On the contrary, the case calls for our continued vigilance. After the restoration of democracy in Argentina, they formed a national commission on the desaparecidos whose widely regarded report was entitled “Nunca Más” (Never Again). The typical Pinoy doesn’t speak Spanish, but one day we should be able to join our Latin compañeros in proclaiming: Nunca Más.

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TAGS: courts, crimes, featured columns, fugitive, human rights, illegal detention, Jovito Palparan, kidnapping, opinion
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