Sherlyn Cadapan & Karen Empeño

The case of the disappearances of Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño provides an emphatic illustration of the refusal of the military to cooperate in dealing with human rights violations. It also underlines how difficult it is in the Philippines to enforce even supreme court rulings and how slowly the mills of the legal system grind.

The two students Empeño and Cadapan were abducted by armed men on the night of June 26, 2006, in Hagonoy on the island of Luzon where they were conducting field research on the situation of farmers. The farmer Manuel Merino tried to stop the perpetrators but in the process was abducted himself. The human rights group Alyansa ng mga Mama Mayan para Pantaong Karaptan–Bulacan (Alliance for Human Rights–Bulacan) reacted quickly and identified the vehicle used in the abduction as a military vehicle of the 56th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine army.

Relevant clues concerning the fate of the two young women, however, could only be gleaned from the courageous testimony of Raymond Manalo. Manalo was likewise a victim of an abduction along with his brother in 2006. After his escape from military detention, he reported on the brutal torture methods used against him and his fellow prisoners, among them also the two missing students.

The prime suspect in the case is the former General Jovito Palparan, who is also thought to be responsible for numerous other human rights violations. Also said to be involved are, among others, Sergeant Edgario Osario, Lieutenant-Colonel Felipe Anotado, and Sergeant Rizal Hilario. The reason for the abduction of the young women could never be unequivocally clarified. What is certain, however, is that the students were accused by the military of being linked with “leftist activities.”

More than two years passed before the Court of Appeals issued a protection order in September 2008 in the context of a writ of Amparo and ordered the immediate release of Empeño and Cadapan, but without naming the perpetrators even though these were identified by several witnesses. When the two women still had not been released over a month later, their mothers applied for permission to visit military camps. Furthermore, they brought an action before the Supreme Court to have both senior representatives of the military as well as then President Gloria Magapagal-Arroyo be held accountable.[1] When the Court of Appeals subsequently refused to enforce its own release order, the relatives of victims proceeded to appeal to the Supreme Court. The latter in turn took almost two years to confirm the original release order.

When in December 2011, over five years after the abduction, an arrest warrant was finally issued against Palparan and the other suspects, the latter went into hiding. With the sole exception of Osario and Anotado, all of the suspects were on the run.

In August 2014, after almost three years as a fugitive, General Jovito Palparan was arrested in Manila by the Philippine National Police. It must be noted that the proceedings would never pushed through if the families of the victims had not fought so hard for them.

In September 17, 2018, Palparan was finally sentenced to 40 years in prison by the Regional Court in Bulacan for the kidnapping and unlawful detention of the two female students. The court decision in the Palparan case is considered one of the few successes in the fight against the culture of impunity in the Philippines.

The AMP Human Rights Report from 2019 features the case on p. 24.

[1] However, the action brought against President Magapagal-Arroyo was not admitted by the court on the grounds of her immunity as head of state.

Update: January 31, 2023