“While we commend the courage of the mothers of Karen and Sherlyn, now human rights defenders themselves, in pursuing the criminal case, it is equally significant that the Aquino government must take concrete steps in making the roads to justice accessible for the victims and their families.” – Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Mrs. Concepcion Empeño’s eyes looked tired but she was smiling at supporters.
As usual, she left Masinloc, Zambales at midnight to make it to the hearing at the Department of Justice (DOJ). By 6 p.m. of the same day, she has to travel back to their home. She gets there by 12 midnight and has to wake up early the next day to go to work. She is a principal of an elementary school.
This has been her weekly routine since the start of the hearings on the criminal complaint she and Mrs. Erlinda Cadapan filed against military officials linked to the abduction of their daughters Karen and Sherlyn.
“This is tiring but we cannot stop now. Physically, it is taxing, and financially too, but we could not give up until we find justice,” Mrs. Empeño, now 60 years old, told Bulatlat.com after a hearing on Sept. 7.
To get to Manila, Mrs. Empeño needs to shell out P1,000 for food and transportation. The family has meager income, with her husband Oscar tending poultry.
The same goes true for Mrs. Cadapan. “Honestly, I am very tired but this has to be done. We need to obtain justice. They have to surface my daughter and the perpetrators should be punished,” she said.
To be able to attend the hearings, Mrs. Cadapan stopped her backyard mushroom production, the family’s means of livelihood for years. She admitted that there were times she had no money for transportation and food but she constantly gets support from her children and her colleagues.
Karen, Sherlyn and farmer Manuel Merino were abducted by state security forces on June 26, 2006 in Hagonoy, Bulacan.
Five years of searching
Both mothers searched military camps, morgues and funeral parlors to look for their daughters.
They filed all kinds of petition before the courts. As early as July 17, 2006, the parents of the two students filed a petition for the writ of habeas corpus at the Court of Appeals but the said petition was dismissed on March 29, 2007 on the basis of the military’s denial of custody of Sherlyn and Karen. On October 24 of the same year, Mrs. Empeño and Mrs. Cadapan filed a petition for a writ of amparo. The Court of Appeals then granted the said writ but the UP students remain missing.
Only this year, after five years since the incident, did the mothers saw a ray of hope when the Supreme Court issued a decision on their writ of amparo petition. In a decision promulgated in May, the high court found Jovito Palparan Jr., Lt. Col. Rogelio Boac of the 56th Infantry Battalion and Lt. Col. Felipe Anotado of the 24th Infantry Battalion, M/Sgt. Donald Caigas, M/Sgt. Rizal Hilario, Lt. Francis Mirabelle Samson and Arnel Enriquez who were once assigned to the 7th Infantry Division and the 24th Infantry Battalion, as “responsible and accountable” for the abductions.
The decision prompted the mothers to file charges of rape, serious physical injuries, arbitrary detention, maltreatment of prisoners, grave threats, grave coercion, violations, among others, against Palparan, and several “John Does.”
“This [DOJ investigation gave us hope,” Mrs. Empeño said.
The search for their daughters and for justice continues to be difficult.
“The only normal thing now is the abnormality caused by Karen’s disappearance. Abnormalities in our work, in our finances, in our social lives have become normal,” Mrs. Empeño said.
Mrs. Empeño said they live with Karen’s memories each day. With Karen’s photograph conspicuously placed in the living room, Mrs. Empeño said they strive to live as though Karen has not disappeared.
“We see her every day. We also celebrate her birthday,” Mrs. Empeño said.
“I miss her, her being cheerful, her love for reading,” Mrs. Empeño said.
Mrs. Cadapan said they also celebrate Sherlyn’s birthday. During Christmas, they would place Sherlyn’s photograph on the table before taking noche buena.
“I miss her so much. Whenever she goes home from Diliman, she would see to it I would not do any household chore. She would do everything for me,” Mrs. Cadapan said.
“There were times when she would cook for the little ones in the neighborhood. She loves children,” Mrs. Cadapan said. Sherlyn was pregnant at the time she was abducted.
If there was anything positive in her five years of searching, Mrs. Cadapan said, it is her political awakening. “I learned that the prevailing system is frustrating. Those who exposed the rottenness of the system are treated as enemies of the state,” she said.
Both mothers said the support they get from human rights groups and other organizations keep them going.
Salute to women of courage
In a statement, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, a leading network of 180 feminist organizations from 25 countries saluted the “courage of the mothers, human rights defenders themselves, in filing a criminal case before the DOJ against the military perpetrators
“While we commend the courage of the mothers of Karen and Sherlyn, now human rights defenders themselves, in pursuing the criminal case, it is equally significant that the Aquino government must take concrete steps in making the roads to justice accessible for the victims and their families. The Aquino government must exercise its power in making the perpetrators accountable,” the APWLD said.
Cristina Palabay, convenor of Tanggol Bayi and End Impunity Alliance said the responsibility for the crimes actually “extends to former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who had legitimized these violations through Oplan Bantay Laya.”
?The groups called on the Aquino government to ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances and certify as urgent the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Bill pending in Congress in the Philippines.