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Philippines Rights Group Praises Legal Measure That Helps Locate Missing Persons

A new legal measure in the Philippines intended to help stop extrajudicial killings and kidnappings is already producing results. So far, the missing persons have been found in about half the cases to which the new measure was applied. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila, a Philippine human rights group expects many more such cases in the coming months.

Disappearances and murders have plagued the Philippines in recent years and rights activists accuse the armed forces of systematically targeting leftists. The military has repeatedly denied this, but the problem and the controversy continue.

In late October, the Philippine Supreme Court issued a new measure called the writ of amparo, giving people a new weapon to find out about missing persons. Chief Justice Reynato Puno praised the measure's initial results.

"We hope that this writ of amparo has given our people better hope that there will be more lasting, more effective solutions to the cases involving extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances," he said. "On the part of the judiciary we are trying our best to protect and enhance the constitutional rights of the people."

Under the measure, the military can be forced to prove it is not holding missing persons. This shifts the burden of proof to the state in cases of political violence in which the government has refused to provide vital evidence. Judges and police can even inspect military bases.

Amparo means protection in Spanish and has been used in many Latin American countries to protect against rights abuses. Of the seven cases handled under the writ so far, the military has produced four missing people in court.

The Philippine human rights group Karapatan says there have been about 800 extrajudicial killings since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001. One hundred eighty six activists and others have gone missing.

Karapatan spokesman Jigs Clamor says the new legal measure is an important step forward.

"We welcome the writ of amparo. It is working now. And we hope that it will become a tool to help victims find their loved ones, " Clamor said.

Karapatan also says disappearances and extrajudicial killings are decreasing this year.

The group says from January to July there have been only 19 disappearances, compared with 60 for the same period last year. In addition, Karapatan counts 62 political killings up to July, compared with 143 for that time frame in 2006.

The United Nations, Amnesty International, the European Union and the United States have sharply criticized the Philippines over extrajudicial killings and Karapatan spokesman Clamor says that has helped.

"The statements made by various international human rights organizations have really helped in putting pressure on the Philippine government to really address this problem of enforced disappearances and abductions," Clamor said.

The Philippine military has repeatedly denied direct involvement in political killings and abductions, blaming many of the cases on purges within the communist New People's Army.

But U.N. human rights rapporteur Philip Alston dismisses this explanation. He says the military's argument is unconvincing and appears to be an attempt to shift responsibility. He visited the Philippines in February and issued his final report Monday. He says that in some parts of the country, the armed forces have a strategy of hunting down the leaders of leftist organizations.