Justice denied: Baliaga acquitted, search for Jonas continues after a decade

‘WE WILL NOT GIVE UP.’ Edita Burgos, who has led the 10-year search for her missing activist son Jonas, speaks before protesters outside the Quezon City Hall of Justice after the acquittal of Army Maj. Harry Baliaga, one of the identified abductors. (Photo by Ruth Lumibao/Bulatlat)

By RUTH LUMIBAO
Bulatlat

MANILA – Still no justice, still no Jonas.

Ten years after peasant activist Jonas Burgos was abducted and disappeared by suspected military men, his family continues to be denied justice as one of the suspects was cleared of the charges after a four-year court battle.

Today, Oct. 12, presiding Judge Alfonso C. Ruiz II of Branch 216 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Quezon City acquitted Army Maj. Harry Baliaga, Jr. of the charge of arbitrary detention. The nine-page decision was based on the conclusion that the prosecution presented evidence based on “hearsay” and “failed to prove the identity of the criminal.”

On April 28, 2007, Jonas Burgos was abducted in the Ever Gotesco mall in Quezon City by suspected armed state agents, forced inside a van with the plate number TAB 194. He was still able to speak to his mother thru a phone call, but his message made no sense and was delivered in a trembling voice. He remains missing.

Baliaga, a lieutenant of the Army’s 56th infantry battalion at the time of Jonas’s disappearance, was identified by two employees at the Ever Gotesco mall as one of the men who dragged the victim out of the mall. He was charged with arbitrary detention in October 2013. The Quezon City RTC ordered Baliaga’s arrest, but was promptly bailed out by the military.

Key witnesses to the abduction had testified in previous hearings at the Court of Appeals and in the investigation of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), but had absconded and were not presented before the QC RTC for Baliaga’s trial.

But the fight to find Jonas does not end in the courts, said the Burgos family and human rights groups, who now challenge Baliaga to cooperate in their search.

Critical witnesses

After the Court of Appeals released a decision declaring Jonas Burgos’ abduction as a case of enforced disappearance, the witnesses absconded. Efforts by the prosecution, led by lawyers Jun Oliva and Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), to locate the witnesses proved to be futile. The critical witnesses of the case were the busboy and waitress of Hapag Kainan.

Olalia said the busboy, Jeffrey Cabintoy, was under the Witness Protection Program of the CHR during the incumbency of Etta Rosales.

He said the witnesses left the CHR program for various reasons.

“For some personal contradictions with members of the CHR, umalis siya, and he was nowhere to be found since then,” Olalia explained. “‘Yong isa gustong mag-abroad, and hindi na talaga namin mahanap, and ‘yong isa nasa military daw,” Olalia said. He asserted that the evidence during trial was morally convincing.

“We think this is beyond legal formulas and consideration,” he said. He highlighted that Baliaga had authority over the 56th Infantry Batallion, which had custody over the same van used to abduct Jonas. As a defense, Baliaga contended that the van was stolen by members of the New People’s Army (NPA).

During the trial, the prosecution presented five witnesses: Edita Burgos and Jose Luis Burgos, Jonas’s mother and brother, respectively; Carlos Royeras, lawyer Robinson Vinas, and Bayani Arago.

Royeras, Vinas, and Arago were officials of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and were privy to the investigation conducted by the same office after Jonas’ disappearance. Edita testified on the last moments she was able to contact Jonas. This was corroborated by her son, Jose Luis Burgos. The RTC merely dismissed these testimonies to have “little to no probative value.”

‘We respect the decision’

“Respetuhin natin ang desisyon, pero hindi ibig sabihin ay natalo tayo. Naantala lang tayo sa paghahanap. Matagal-tagal pa bago natin mayakap si Jonas (We respect the decision, but it does not mean that we lost. Our search is merely delayed. It may still take some time before we reunite with Jonas),” Edita said, addressing the mobilization led by Karapatan outside the Quezon City Hall of Justice.

“We will never give up,” she said.

Army Maj. Harry Baliaga faces the media after being acquitted of the case of arbitrary detention of Jonas Burgos (Photo by Ruth Lumibao/Bulatlat)

Moving forward, Olalia explained that the search for justice for Jonas Burgos is not yet over. He said his team will prepare other cases that can be filed against Baliaga, such as enforced disappearance, which is a continuing crime and will not constitute double jeopardy against Baliaga.

“And then, publicly, mananawagan kami na ituro niya si Jonas (We will call on Baliaga to tell us where Jonas is),” he said.

Olalia also explained that there are several other cases filed against Jonas’ captors.

A motion for reconsideration is pending in the case at the Supreme Court against Lt. General Eduardo Año, now Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Phiippines (AFP). Año headed the Intelligence Service of the AFP or ISAFP, when Jonas was abducted. Other allegedly involved officials in the abduction of Jonas Burgos are Army 56th IB commanding officer Lt. Col. Melquiades Feliciano, former Army commanding general Lt. Gen. Romeo Tolentino, former AFP chiefs of staff Hermogenes Esperon and Alexander Yano, and former PNP chief Avelino Razon Jr.

Esperon now serves as President Duterte’s national security adviser.

“More than 10 years after Jonas’ abduction, the justice system continues to attempt to frustrate efforts of the Burgos family to seek accountability and find Jonas,” Karapatan said in a statement.

“Enforced disappearances continue under Duterte, with four documented cases of desaparecidos, and the climate of impunity has worsened, with the accused perpetrators in the Jonas Burgos case in power. This is clearly injustice many times over for Jonas, the Burgos family, and all victims of state-sponsored violations,” Karapatan said.

Related story: Timeline | The search for Jonas Burgos

(http://bulatlat.com)

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