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Day Of The Disappeared: Kidnapping And Torture Victims Seek Justice

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MELISSA ROXAS
Jorge Macias

LOS ANGELES -- In May 2009, Filipino-American Melissa Roxas was allegedly beaten, kidnapped and tortured by unidentified members of the army in her native Philippines.

“I thought my death was inevitable,” recalls Roxas.

Now she is demanding justice. This Tuesday, on the International Day of the Disappeared, a commemorative day designed to draw attention to the plight of kidnapping and torture victims in Latin American countries and elsewhere, she asked the United Nations to intervene, calling for the investigation of 39 cases of “forced disappearances,” including her own, during the regime of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Roxas is not alone. In 1986, Rossana Perez escaped her native El Salvador during its civil war. She was imprisoned, raped, beaten and tortured repeatedly until she was able to flee to the US with her 18-month-old daughter. Her husband, Rodolfo Aguilar, a university professor who helped field workers and teachers build democracy in their country, disappeared. Aguilar is presumed dead, but his body has never been found.

Marvyn Ivan Perez, a Guatemalan man who is not related to Rossana Perez, disappeared in his home country in 1982, during the repressive regime of former de facto President Efrain Rios Montt. Allegedly tortured after his disappearance, Perez eventually sought asylum in the United States.

Roxas, Perez, and Perez, all now American citizens living in Los Angeles, are trying to heal the wounds and scars that remain.

With the help of the Program for Torture Victims (PTV) in Los Angeles, they have begun to recuperate, both physically and psychologically. The organization also helped them obtain citizenship, enabling them to become defenders of the rights of women, immigrants, and refugees.

Roxas, 33, advocates for health care rights for low-income people in Los Angeles. Marvyn Perez, 45, is a medical provider who also advocates on behalf of immigrants, and Rossana Perez, 52, works with children traumatized by violence at the Children’s Institute in Los Angeles.

All three share the same goal of helping the victims of forced disappearance, abduction, and torture.

“Ours weren’t isolated incidents. Abductions and torture persist in many Latin American countries and throughout the world,” Marvyn Perez said. “Thanks to the United States, I can share my story.”

“In the last 30 to 40 years, torture has propagated like a disease sweeping the world," he added.

The U.N. prohibited the use of torture in 1987 and in 2007, 60 nations ratified the International Convention on Forced Disappearance. As part of an initiative by the Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (FEDEFAM), August 30 is commemorated in many countries each year as the International Day of the Disappeared.

Benjamin Schonbrun and Victoria Don, Roxas' lawyers, have filed an appeal before Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, in Geneva, Switzerland. They are urging the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to investigate Melissa's case and 38 others like it.

Roxas said that in May 2009, while performing community health work, her 15 armed captors tried to force her to admit that she was a “terrorist” member of the rebel New People’s Army (NPA) fighting against the Philippine government. She said she and her two friends, Juanito Carabeo and John Edward Jandoc, were kicked, blindfolded and subjected to six days of torture.

"When I was freed, they warned me not to say anything to anyone," she said. "Otherwise, me and my family would face reprisals."

HuffPost LatinoVoices attempted to contact Philippine Consul General Mary Jo Bernardo Aragon to comment on Roxas' allegations, but she has not responded.

PTV cofounder and clinical director Ana Deutsch says Roxas' story is a familiar one. "Torture continues in diverse parts of the world, and the governments don’t do enough to try and prohibit it," she said. "Those who order and sanction it should be punished."

Julie Gutman, executive director of PTV, told HuffPost that in its 30 years of operation, the group has helped reconstruct the lives of torture survivors in more than 65 countries.

In 2009 and 2010 alone, PTV helped 305 victims of kidnapping and torture -- 52 percent of them men, 44 percent of them women and 4 percent of them transgender.

“Throughout history, it has been men like Marvyn, or women like Melissa and Rossana, who have sought out freedom, democracy and dignity,” Gutman said. “They demand justice.”

Marvyn Perez recalls that he was only 14 when he was first jailed on May 29, 1982, by Guatemalan military police.

“They blindfolded me, and I was beaten about the body and burned with cigarettes,” Perez said. He was set free June 9, 1982, and fled his country in secret. Seven years later, in 1989, the U.S. government granted him political asylum.

“Many people vanished, were tortured, murdered or forced into exile. Lots of them found refuge in Mexico,” said Perez.

In 1986, Rossana Perez was a university student who helped Salvadoran farm workers and teachers learn about democracy, even as her country was drowning in the blood of civil war. Shortly after her husband went missing in the middle of the night, the ‘death squads’ arrived for her, she said.

She was blindfolded, bound and separated from her daughter. “They stripped me nude by force and beat me,” she recalled. "I was continuously tortured while imprisoned.”

In January 2010, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes apologized on behalf of the state for the grave human rights violations committed by government agents during the civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, and announced the creation of a reparations commission for the victims.

One year later, in January 2011, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly approved an amendment to the penal code that declared torture a crime against humanity and increased the penalty for the crime from six to twelve years in prison.

“The acknowledgement and respect for human rights are part of the fundamental new politics of the Salvadoran government,” Hector Silva Avalos, a spokesman for the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, told HuffPost.

“We are seeing initiatives come to fruition to dignify the victims of atrocities committed by the state during the civil war,” he said.

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