MANILA -- The Philippines has enacted a law aimed at stopping the military and police officers from abducting people suspected of antigovernment activity, one of the ugly legacies of years of dictatorship.
The law, which President Benigno S. Aquino III signed late Friday, makes the "arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the state" punishable by life in prison. Congress passed the legislation in October.
Human Rights Watch said the law was "a major milestone in ending this horrific human rights violation." It was the first major human rights legislation signed by Mr. Aquino, who campaigned on promises of a better human rights climate. Many rights groups say his record since his election in 2010 has been mixed.
The kidnapping of political opponents by the security forces in the Philippines is a legacy of martial law, imposed in the 1970s by the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. During that period, political opponents were abducted, tortured and sometimes killed.
Such actions continue today on a smaller scale, despite the restoration of democracy in 1986, according to rights advocates. The organization Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance, based in Manila, says that since 1985 more than 2,200 people have disappeared at the hands of the security forces or others linked to the government.
"It is a way for the authorities to short-circuit our laws and Constitution," said Carlos Isagani Zarate, a vice president of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, which represents people who say they have been abducted by the military. "If they suspect someone is part of an underground organization but they don't think the case will prosper in court, they abduct them."
"In a lot of the cases, the victims are innocent civilians who are suspected of having links to underground groups," Mr. Zarate said.
Under Mr. Aquino -- the son of an opposition politician who was assassinated during Mr. Marcos's rule and former President Corazon C. Aquino, who led the popular uprising that drove Mr. Marcos from power -- there have been 17 documented cases of forced disappearances, according to Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, secretary general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. That, however, is a steep decline from the more than 300 cases alleged during the administration of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
"The number of cases has decreased, but we cannot tolerate even one forced disappearance," Ms. Bacalso said. "The cases continue despite the pronouncements of the administration in support of human rights."
One notorious case from the previous administration that the Justice Department has yet to resolve is that of Jovito Palparan, a retired general who was given the nickname "The Butcher" during his more than two decades of military service. He was indicted in December 2011 in connection with the abduction in 2006 of two women who were university students and activists for leftist groups. According to a statement filed in court by the prosecution, the women were kept chained in a barracks and were periodically tortured and sexually assaulted by soldiers under General Palparan's command.
"The girls narrated the circumstances of their abduction to our witness," said Edre Olalia, a lawyer for the victims' families. "He saw them being tortured in a restroom. It was a horrible account of physical and sexual abuse."
Despite a nationwide manhunt, and the offer of a large reward for his capture, General Palparan is still at large.
"It is immensely difficult to prosecute these kinds of cases," Mr. Olalia said. "I don't think this new law alone will make prosecution any easier. There must be a strong demonstration to the security forces that they can no longer get away with this. So far, the administration has not done that."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.