Government prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation Friday into a criminal complaint against a retired general and other soldiers alleged to have detained two student activists five years ago.
Parents and supporters of missing University of the Philippines students Karen Empeno and Sheryln Cadapan faced off at the justice department, where three witnesses affirmed their statements that the two women were abducted and detained by soldiers.
Ret. Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, then commander of the army division in the area where the women were last seen in 2006, and the military, have denied involvement.
"I am strongly denying that," Palparan told reporters. "What will you admit if there is nothing (to admit)?"
Marie Hilao Enriquez, head of the local human rights group Karapatan expressed hopes that the case will prosper and the violators will be made to pay for their crimes. "This will be a step towards ending impunity," she added in a statement.
In front of the department's gate, police blocked dozens of activists who held placards calling for the jailing of Palparan and for justice for the missing women.
The mothers of the two students filed a complaint last May for arbitrary detention, rape and serious physical injuries against Palparan and six other people, mostly active or retired army officials.
They said Cadapan, 23, and Empeno, 29, were taken by soldiers during a research trip in Bulacan province, northwest of Manila. Both students are members of left-wing youth groups.
On Friday, their mothers asked prosecutors to put the respondents under an immigration watch list to prevent them from fleeing.
Prosecutors gave Palparan and other respondent until July 19 to submit their sworn answers after they pleaded for time.
Last May, the Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Appeals order for the military, led by Palparan, to immediately release the missing women. Their mothers earlier petitioned for writ of amparo, or an order for authorities to find missing persons to protect their civil liberties.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International says more than 200 disappearances and at least 305 extrajudicial killings during former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's nine years in office have not been resolved.
A U.N. investigator, Philip Alston, accused the military in 2007 of being in "a state of denial" about the "significant number of killings" of left-wing activists by soldiers.
Enriquez said other human rights abuse cases have been filed against Palparan but were dismissed by Arroyo's then-justice secretary Raul Gonzales.