Army officer acquitted in Jonas Burgos abduction case

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A sign demanding the surfacing of missing activist Jonas Burgos is raised in front of the Quezon City Hall of Justice where a trial court judge acquitted Army Major Harry Baliaga Jr. of arbitrary detention charges. (photo by JL Burgos)

MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATE 3 – 3:15 p.m.) More than 10 years after activist Jonas Burgos went missing after being snatched from a mall in Quezon City, an Army officer charged with the abduction was acquitted by the Quezon City regional trial court on Thursday, October 12.

The verdict by QC RTC Branch 216 Judge Alfonso Ruiz II said the prosecution “failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the identity of accused Harry Baliaga Jr. as the person who abducted and arbitrarily detained Jonas Burgos.”

Burgos’ mother Edita told reporters they were saddened by the decision but would respect it.

“We shall continue and look for Jonas. This is a bad day. I feel so bad. But we will find Jonas,” Edita Burgos said.

Baliaga, now a major, was allegedly one of those who seized Burgos, son of press freedom icon Jose Burgos, as he lunched at the Ever Gotesco mall on Commonwealth Avenue on April 28, 2007.

But the judge said “no eyewitness testified to identify the accused Baliaga as one of those responsible for the disappearance of Burgos. In fact, none of the witnesses identified him in court.”

“A close scrutiny of the testimonies of the witnesses in trying to prove abduction will reveal that they were based not on their personal perception but based on statements made by other persons who claimed to have witnessed the abduction,” he added. “This kind of testimony is hearsay in nature.”

The dispositive portion of the verdict acquitting Major Harry Baliaga Jr. (contributed photo)

‘HOLES OF JUSTICE’

Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), which had been assisting the Burgoses, explained how it happened that the QC RTC found itself presented with what it considered “hearsay” evidence presented by the prosecution. In fact, there were primary eyewitnesses who had positively identified Baliaga Jr. during earlier hearings – for a protection order – in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. However, the witnesses disappeared while in the custody of the Commission on Human Rights (then under Chair Etta Rosales, when it was the time of the regional trial court to try Baliaga Jr.

Thus, the prosecution lawyers did the next best thing – have those who participated in the CA hearings, like Mrs. Burgos – testify before the RTC judge that, indeed, there were eyewitnesses who positively identified Baliaga Jr. among Burgos’ abductors, during the CA and SC hearings.

“We are immeasurably frustrated that key eyewitnesses who positively identified Baliaga before the Court of Appeals in 2014 are nowhere to be found and could not be presented anymore before the trial court despite tremendous diligent efforts to locate them. One of these key witnesses was supposed to be in the witness protection of the Commission on Human Rights under the previous watch. We pray they would step forward again and repair the damage and anguish,” said Olalia in a statement.

“Many would in fact find it incomprehensible that even as the Court of Appeals in the 2013 Amparo petition categorically declared Baliaga “responsible” and the AFP, particularly the Philippine Army “accountable” for the enforced disappearance of Jonas – a finding essentially acknowledged by the Supreme Court in 2014 – the soldier would now walk today.”

Olalia lamented: “On legal malady, Baliaga now walks free with an indelible clue of a smirk on his face. But his accountability remains as he was earlier indubitably pinpointed by eyewitnesses responsible for Burgos’ disappearance. Such positive identification years back has never been assailed or controverted even by him.”

Olalia described the acquittal as “a reflection of the limitations and abstractions of a judicial system inherent in a society marred by social injustices and State-sponsored human rights violations clothed with inpunity. Despite the legal ratiocinations, we are morally convinced of the soldier’s knowledge and involvement in the grisly abduction of the young farmer-activist.”

He pointed to the sheer irony of the case: “Major Baliaga benefited from this very judicial system which he and his cohorts have mocked the very moment they laid their bloodied hands on Jonas Burgos and caused his disappearance ten years ago.”

Nonetheless, Olalia expressed hope that as a free man, “Baliaga’s conscience should haunt him till the last days of his life. Unless he finally speaks out and tell where Jonas is and who got him.”

Olalia likewise noted that “the top-ranked military officials in the person of now Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Ano, now National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon and many others who have a lot of explaining to do with Jonas’ disappearance enjoy impunity.”

Their motion to reconsider the DOJ resolution absolving Gen. Año – who retires as AFP chief on Oct. 24 – and the others remains pending, Olalia noted, but conceded, “we face a blank wall built by powerful forces.”

He said they “will explore and exhaust all legal options available and we will not let ourselves be bounded and limited by legal infirmities. The odds may not have been in our favor today because of the quandary beyond our control or desire but Mrs. B and her family will keep on searching. After all, justice comes in many forms in their own time.”

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We will find Jonas, justice will be served – Edita Burgos

2011 complaint in DOJ

Aside from Baliaga, then a junior officer of Bravo Company of the 56th Infantry Battalion, the original complaint filed before the Department of Justice in 2011 also accused his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel and now Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Eduardo Ano, then commander of the Army Intelligence Service Group.

A separate complaint for obstruction of justice was also filed against then AFP chief Hermogenes Esperon, then Army chief Romeo Tolentino, his replacement Alexander Yano and then Philippine National Police chief Avelino Razon Jr.

However, the DOJ recommended that only Baliaga be charged in court.

According to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, a motion on the DOJ’s resolution remains pending. (with reports from Camille Aguinaldo, InterAksyon)