The question then was how would you expect a mother to react when she learns that her daughter was tortured in unimaginable ways, naked and hung upside down, in the sight of all the soldiers in that camp?
It was in October 2007, when I got an urgent call requesting me to go to the national office of Karapatan (Rights), an alliance of human rights organizations. When I reached the office, I was informed that there was news about the missing University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. I was told that they were seen alive by a farmer who was also abducted and held captive in a military camp.
Mothers Erlinda Cadapan and Concepcion Empeño would be hearing a detailed narrative of how their daughters were seen being tortured in a military camp for the first time. The news was contained in an affidavit executed by a witness, and I was there as a mother of another disappeared to provide support to the two mothers.
In the office, as I held the hands of one mother who was reading the affidavit, I kept reminding myself to be calm and to be strong. Having been briefed earlier, somehow, I knew what the affidavit contained. But the hugs could only do so much to comfort the distraught mothers. The tears just flowed. They were as copious as those shed by the mothers themselves. Oscar Romero aptly describes the feeling, “there are many things that can only be seen through the eyes that have cried.”
All these rushed back when I saw the news. On May 31, 2022, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s conviction of Army Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr., with Lt. Col Felipe Anotado, and Staff Sgt. Edgardo Osorio for kidnapping and serious illegal detention over the enforced disappearance of Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan in June 2006.
However, the appellate court, aside from affirming the conviction, modified the penalty by adding “without eligibility to apply for parole” to the reclusion perpetua sentence. The court also imposed a six percent annual interest on the PhP300,000 civil indemnity and moral damages granted to the families of Karen and Sherlyn.
Karen and Sherlyn were college students working on their research on fisherfolk in Calumpit, Bulacan. They disappeared on June 26, 2006. Sherlyn, a second child, was a sports science senior stuent at the time of her disappearance. She was a university scholar, being a varsity sprinter according to her mother. Karen was a sociology student in her fourth year at the university. They were abducted by armed men with farmer Manuel Merino.
I met Nanay Linda and Nanay Coni in the search for my son Jonas, a victim of enforced disappearance. They were among the first to extend the support I needed by attending all the activities for Jonas. Their daughters had been taken a year and two months before I lost my son, so they already knew what to do and what to avoid. After a few months, a deep bond, along with other families of “desaparecidos,” developed and we became an extended family to each other.
In late October, or was it early November of 2007, when a fact-finding team went to the camp where the two students were sighted, I joined the mothers. At the new camp site we chanced upon the same military battalion. It was not easy to experience being told blatant lies when you know the truth.
By God’s grace, the accomplices gave themselves away and exposed themselves with their bragging before they could do us harm. We were already miles away yet the shivers would not go away. Most of us felt an unexplained negative presence as we went around the abandoned camp looking for clues. The presence caused the shivers. It was here where the witness saw a victim being burned alive. We were told that the forensic guys recovered fragments of burnt human bones in the site.
In May 2011, a team of lawyers from the National Union of Peoples Lawyers filed a case of kidnapping, torture, rape, serious physical injuries, arbitrary detention, maltreatment of prisoners, grave threats, and coercion against Palparan, et al, at the Department of Justice.
As an extended desaparecidos family, we accompanied the mothers in the various means we were able to. Most attended the hearings, others provided food, some stayed home and prayed and all sent messages of encouragement.
Not unlike most cases of human rights violations, from the preliminary investigation on July 8, 2011, to the pretrial in November 2014 to September 17, 2018, when the court resolution was handed down, the nine-year legal process of the Karen-Sherlyn case demonstrated the steadfastness of the lawyers to uncover the truth and obtain justice. And consider further that the services were rendered “pro-bono.”
Such generosity of the heart elicited an equal commitment from fellow victims whose company could be depended upon during the hearings.
Acknowledging the strength and perseverance of the parents of Karen and Sherlyn, the witnesses, the Desaparecidos, an organization of families and friends of the disappeared, lawyers and human rights groups, the international community and the Filipino people who kept watch and remained vigilant throughout the years as contributory to the victory, Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay underscored the “need to pursue justice and accountability despite threats, harassment, reprisals and patronage by those in power.”
Lawyer Edre Olalia further adds: “Rare and far between as they are, the accountability of remorseless human rights violators will come if the victims, families, human rights defenders persist. It is a loud and clear warning to those who entertain the thought that they are invincible and untouchable just because they are in power.”
Thankful and grateful, mothers Concepcion Empeño and Erlinda Cadapan said that their prayers for the decision to be affirmed are answered. However, they said that the victory is only partial. True and complete justice will be realized only after Karen and Sherlyn are surfaced and returned to their families.
The triumph in the Karen and Sherlyn case is not simply a legal triumph. It is a spark that brings hope especially to the families of the missing. We shed tears with them. We rejoice with them, and now we pray that Karen and Sherlyn and all disappeared would be surfaced.
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.