Karapatan calls on CHR to probe secret prisons

If there is anything that recent abduction cases prove, it is the existence of secret prisons maintained by State forces, in violation of Republic Act 10353 or the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012.

On August 20, 2022, Cordilleran activist Stephen “Steve” Tauli was abducted outside the office of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) in Ag-a Road, Appas, Tabuk City. Upon his arrest, he was interrogated about his work and the identities of certain alleged personalities of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA). His captors transferred Tauli to another vehicle and took him to a house where he was forced to sign a document stating his supposed position in the CPP-NPA. Tauli’s captors said they’ll let him live if he signs the document. Members of the CPA found Tauli on the night of August 21, 2022.

A young urban poor activist from Pandi, Bulacan was abducted by four men in a mall in San Jose and was forced into a vehicle on the night of October 25, 2020. He was brought to a hut in an isolated farm area, with one of his captors introducing himself as a soldier of the 48th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. He was accused of being an NPA member, told to identify Kadamay leaders and forced to be recruited as an asset of the military. Out of fear, he agreed to be their asset, was given money and told to regularly report on his assignment. After four days, he was brought back to his community.

On January 10, 2023, Cebu-based activists Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dayoha were abducted by armed men who introduced themselves as police officers, as their ship docked at Pier 6 in Cebu City. For five days, they were blindfolded and illegally detained in different places, where they were threatened, interrogated and coerced to spy on the organizations they belonged to. At least one of their places of detention was located in another island that they reached by boarding a sea vessel. Armand and Dyan’s abductors dropped them off at a resort in Cebu on the afternoon of January 15, where a group that included members of their families picked them up the day after.

Most recently, on May 18, 2023, Cagayan-based activists Patricia Cierva and Michael Casano were captured by elements of the 501st Brigade in Barangay Cabiroaoan, Gonzaga town in Cagayan. They were held for 15 days at a secret prison where their captors subjected them to relentless psychological torture to break their will and stop fighting for the people’s cause. On June 2, they were among 20 “rebel returnees” presented at a press conference by the NTF-ELCAC. Their “surrender,” however, does not in any way diminish the 501st Bde’s liability under the Anti-Desaparecido Law for failing to disclose custody of Cierva and Casano for 15 days. Since neither Cierva nor Casano is facing criminal charges, the 501st Bde should immediately release them or be held liable for its continuing illegal detention of the two activists.

Under RA 10353, enforced disappearance is punishable with life imprisonment. The law likewise requires State authorities to submit regularly to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a complete and updated list of all detention facilities, with the CHR possessing the mandate to make unannounced visits to these prisons.

Not too long ago, in one of its unannounced visits in April 2017, the CHR discovered one such “unofficial jail” hidden behind a bookshelf in a police station in Tondo, Manila. The male and female detainees who were found huddled in the secret jail accused the police of torturing and detaining them for a week without informing their families and lawyers and extorting money from them to secure their release.

There may be hundreds of these secret prisons scattered and maintained across the country as part of the State’s repressive machinery. And many of the desaparecidos like Dexter Capuyan, Bazoo de Jesus, Elgene Mungcal, Ma. Elena Pampoza and many others may be in them.

We call on the Commission on Human Rights to stand by its mandate and initiate a thorough investigation of the State’s network of secret prisons and hold liable those found to be maintaining these prisons and/or holding victims of enforced disappearance in them.