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Enforced disappearances criminalized in Philippines

The Philippines has passed a law imposing tough penalties on government officials or state agents convicted of "enforced disappearances." It comes amid a growing outcry over alleged abductions of government critics.

Enforced disappearances, or abductions at the hands of government forces, will now be treated in the Philippines as a separate crime to ordinary kidnapping, with up to a life term in prison.

The law is the first of its kind in Asia, according to the US-based group Human Rights Watch, which says it is "a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation."

According to the congressman who wrote the bill, Edcel Lagman, the law would also force government officials accused of enforced disappearances to report if they are holding anyone. Government employees and ordinary citizens are also now required to report cases of enforced disappearances.

A Philippine human rights organization, Karapatan, says more than 1,000 political activists and suspected supporters have disappeared since the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, which ended in 1986.

Disappearances of activists rose sharply after Marcos declared martial law in 1972, and despite his toppling in a popular revolt in 1986, activists say the abductions still continue.

Karapatan says it has documented 12 cases under the current president, Benigno Aquino, who signed the law on Friday.

The law also bans secret detention facilities and authorizes the government to carry out regular and unannounced inspections of all places of detention and confinement.

"The important thing is that we now have a duty to report if we know of any case of enforced disappearances," said government spokeswoman Abigail Valte.

"It also provides for the creation of an updated list of all the people held in our detention facilities," Valte said.

jr/bk (AFP, AP)