Disappeared


I accompanied the wife and two children of missing lawyer Joe Franck Zuniga to see Justice Secretary Leila De Lima last week. The purpose of the meeting was to solicit the secretary’s assistance in determining the whereabouts of the missing lawyer, the fourth person to have disappeared this year. De Lima did not disappoint. In the said meeting, she announced that she was creating an NBI Task Force to look into the case.

According to the lawyer’s wife, Charito, Zuniga called her on June 20, 2012 to say that he had a meeting at Oceanworld Subic. He has not been heard from nor seen since. His car, a Honda Civic, was recovered the following day in a remote part of Zambales. According to sketchy police reports, the vehicle was driven to the spot where it was found by a man who later boarded a second vehicle. Unfortunately, the witness who reported this failed to get a glimpse of the face of the driver.

Thus far, the family and authorities are facing a blank wall. Charito and the children related how Zuniga recently received what they believe to be a death threat. Apparently, intelligence authorities from Subic furnished the lawyer with a flyer bearing his picture taken in a prayer rally in the vicinity of Central Methodist Church along Taft and Kalaw, Manila. The leaflet bore the cellular phone numbers of the missing lawyer, his home address and the amount of $10,000.00, which they interpreted as the price tag for the life of the lawyer.

The family could think of no one in particular who would benefit from the disappearance of the lawyer. It is of public knowledge though that Protestants have been known to be very vocal in the promotion of social justice, which is why many military operatives have branded some church members from both the United Church of Christ of the Philippines and the Methodists as “communists”.

A second theory has to do with an on-going strife between the break-away Methodist church headed by Zuniga, AIM Philippines, or the Philippine Methodist Church from its mother church, the United Methodist Church -which until today is supported by the Methodist church of the United States. The family told De Lima that Zuniga had been very critical of what he claims to be issues of corruption within the mainstream Methodist church which led to the recent breakaway of Zuniga’s denomination. I myself refuse to believe that a Christian could conspire against a fellow Christian. But Secretary De Lima was correct in noting that this too would have to be investigated by authorities.

Zuniga is not the only victim of enforced disappearance whom I represent. Prior to his disappearance, three Muslim scholars bound for Somalia disappeared presumably at Naia Terminal 3 where their domestic flight from Zamboanga landed. The three never made it to their connecting flight at Terminal 1. The three simply disappeared and their respective families only had the chance to claim their checked-in luggages one month after their disappearance. Like in Zuniga’s case, there has since been no lead on what happened to the three Muslims. Recently I wrote a letter to Secretary Mar Roxas of the Department of Transportation and Communication for him to convene a conference at the airport for all heads of security forces then present at Naia 3 on the date and time of the disappearance of three men. I am confident that given that the immediate arrival area at the Naia is a secure and sterile area, we could account for all security personnel who were in the vicinity of the arrival gate of the flight taken by the three missing scholars. Meanwhile, I have received unconfirmed reports form sources within the security sector that one of the three missing may have already been killed.

It’s ironic that these disappearances happened at the heel of the country’s recent universal peer review at the Human Rights Council. Almost all countries that quizzed De Lima on the Aquino administration’s human rights record expressed concern that the government is in breach of its obligation to promote and protect the right to life against both extralegal killings and enforced disappearances. The concerns were not that Aquino was behind these, but that this administration was not discharging its obligations to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of these killings and disappearances.

In fairness, I am sure that Aquino himself has never condoned these affronts on the right to life. Unfortunately, part of what international law demands of him is not just to publicly renounce these crimes, but also to punish the perpetrators thereof.

While the numbers of disappearances has not been as large as in other countries such as Peru, there is still reason for alarm. If Zuniga, a seasoned litigator, a respected member of the legal community in Bataan, and a respected church leader could disappear without a trace, what happens now to normal mortals when they disappear?

I shudder at the thought.