Why didn’t gov’t see the disappeared?

President Aquino: ‘You would be judged.’ Inset Desaparecido Jonas Burgos, whose case remains unresolved. INQUIRER PHOTO / GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE Read more: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/622438/why-didnt-govt-see-the-disappeared#ixzz38G903r4B  Follow us: @inquirerdotnet on Twitter | inquirerdotnet on Facebook

President Aquino: ‘You would be judged.’ Inset Desaparecido Jonas Burgos, whose case remains unresolved. INQUIRER PHOTO / GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

Kate Pedroso, Marielle Medina | Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines–It has been seven years since Edita Burgos’ son, farmer-activist Jonas Burgos, was abducted in Quezon City, and despite losing hope that she will find justice under the Aquino administration, she continues to draw strength from family and friends.

“One can never underestimate the strength of a united family,” Burgos told the Inquirer in an e-mail interview, adding that she also finds emotional and spiritual support from members of the group “Desaparecidos, Families of the Disappeared,” as well as relatives and friends of Jonas who make up the “Free Jonas Burgos Movement.”

“I am in touch with some members [of Desaparecidos], especially mothers, and we try to provide support to each other. Yes, I find comfort in these fellow victims. Yes, I can see how blessed I am when I am with them,” she added.

“The strength to continue the search comes from grace. Grace in accepting reality and grace in knowing that there is something we can still do to continue the search, to help other victims and to work for peace,” Burgos said.

She recalled how her family coped, especially during the first few months of her son’s disappearance.

“Living in the hands of God made us live from day to day especially during the early days. Whatever came, we accepted as grace. No clue was rejected, no person was ignored. Yet at the back of our minds we knew that it was possible [that] the clue was floated just to confuse us. We simply pursued the clue and if we hit a blank wall, which always happened, then we looked at other means,” she said.

Not on Aquino’s watch

Photo of Jonas taken right after his abduction on April 27, 2007. An informant sent a copy to his family on 2013.

Photo of Jonas taken right after his abduction on April 27, 2007. An informant sent a this to Burgos family on 2013.

“I don’t think that this administration will be the deciding factor on whether I will find Jonas or not. I do not believe either that justice will be served [on] Mr. Aquino’s watch. Our family has experienced how slow the wheels of justice move in our country,” she said.

In April, in time for the seventh anniversary of her son’s abduction, Burgos wrote an open letter to President Aquino and reminded him of his promise of a “dedicated and exhaustive investigation” into the incident.

“Our hope was anchored on your promise to do what you could ‘on the basis of evidence’ when I, accompanied by my son, personally pleaded for your help. This was almost four years ago, May 2010,” Burgos wrote.

“There has been no action since I wrote the open letter,” Burgos said. “The executive, judicial and military branches of government have been [silent]. This makes me wonder: What must a victim of the continued torture of not finding a disappeared do to get the attention of [the] government?”

Rights violations continue

Burgos lamented that human rights violations continued to happen under the Aquino administration.

“What is dangerous is that the government seems to be oblivious of these violations,” she said.

“Whereas before I was truly hopeful that [I would find] closure, that I would obtain justice during this administration, now, I know that [the] lost and stolen lives of victims of disappearances and all human rights violations as well have never been a priority of this administration.”

“It took more than six years for the courts to conclude that Jonas’ case was indeed an enforced disappearance and that he was abducted by the military,” Burgos said.

Frustrations shared

“Yet even after finding Harry Baliaga Jr., a military officer, as accountable and the Philippine Army as responsible for Jonas’ disappearance, nothing came out of the Supreme Court’s order for the military to surface my son. To this date, no one has been punished for the crime,” she said.

Burgos’s frustration is shared by various groups that have criticized the Aquino administration for inaction.

Human rights group Karapatan, which recorded close to 200 cases of extrajudicial killings from July 2010 to March 2014, said the President’s inaction on human rights violations committed during his administration was comparable to his reaction to the controversy involving the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), an economic stimulus plan that the Supreme Court struck down on July 1.

“[The President’s] tactic of sweeping under the rug human rights violations committed [on] his watch is the same scheme he is now using to cover up his accountability for carting away billions of [pesos in] people’s money under the Disbursement Acceleration Program. If the use of [the] DAP is unconstitutional and an impeachable offense, so are human rights violations committed during his four years in office,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general.

Journalist killings

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Philippines is among the top three countries where the murder of journalists is most likely to go unpunished, ranking third after Iraq and Somalia.

In its latest Global Impunity Index, released in May, CPJ said: “Fresh violence and a failure to prosecute old cases kept Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines in the three worst slots on the index.”

According to the CPJ report, “more than 50 journalist murders that took place from 2004 to 2013 remain unsolved, belying the claim made in November 2013 by Malacañang that ‘there is no more impunity’ in the Philippines.”

On June 9, veteran radio commentator Nilo Baculo Sr. became the latest journalist to be killed under the Aquino administration.

Baculo was shot dead near his home in Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro province, by motorcycle-riding gunmen.

He became the 24th journalist to be killed on President Aquino’s watch.

Five years ago, Baculo, who hosted the hard-hitting program “Isumbong Mo kay Ka Nilo” on dwIM radio in Calapan, was denied by a court a protection order following alleged threats from elected officials in the province. He was no longer a practicing journalist at the time of his assassination.

More than 160 journalists have been killed since 1986, including the 32 who were killed in election violence in Maguindanao province in November 2009. That atrocity is now known as the Maguindanao massacre.

Families of Desaparecidos and Karapatan gather at the gate of Department of Justice in Manila to oppose DOJ decosion to drop Brig. Gen.Eduardo Ano and other military officials from the list of respondents of the criminal case on the diappearance of Jonas Burgos. INQUIRER PHOTO / NIÑO JESUS ORBETA Read more: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/622438/why-didnt-govt-see-the-disappeared#ixzz38G8p3Njq  Follow us: @inquirerdotnet on Twitter | inquirerdotnet on Facebook

Families of Desaparecidos and Karapatan gather at the gate of Department of Justice in Manila to oppose DOJ decosion to drop Brig. Gen.Eduardo Ano and other military officials from the list of respondents of the criminal case on the diappearance of Jonas Burgos. INQUIRER PHOTO / NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

US rights report

Earlier in March, the US state department’s 2014 Human Rights Report also noted that human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by government security forces, have continued unabated in the Philippines for the past year.

The report, which documents human rights conditions in the Philippines and more than 200 other countries, also cited widespread corruption and abuse of power among government officials and a “dysfunctional criminal justice system” as some of the most significant problems abetting human rights violations in the country.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) agreed with the state department’s findings, saying extrajudicial killings have persisted in the Philippines, and that the country’s criminal justice system has remained problematic.

“While there are efforts [by] the Armed Forces of the Philippines to try and improve, it’s true that there are still extrajudicial killings. [Though] they have been reduced, they’re still around and not yet eradicated,” CHR Chair Etta Rosales said.

Rights violations continued to hound President Aquino even during US President Barack Obama’s visit to the Philippines in late April. A foreign correspondent raised the issue during their joint press conference with Obama.

Aquino told Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry: “As far as journalists are concerned, perhaps the track record speaks for itself. The Maguindanao massacre involved something like 32 journalists. There are presently something like over a hundred people who are indicted for this crime and are undergoing trial.”

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines criticized President Aquino’s response. “[President Aquino’s] reply to an American reporter during his joint press conference with US President Barack Obama clearly illustrates how much our illustrious leader really cares about media murders and extrajudicial killings in general—zilch,” the NUJP said in a statement released after the press conference.

Last year, international human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch urged the Aquino administration to declare deadly attacks on Filipino journalists a “national catastrophe,” while two other groups—Reporters Without Borders and the European Union delegation to the Philippines—condemned attacks on journalists and urged the government to take “decisive action.”

‘Higher court’

In the absence of action from the Aquino administration, Burgos said she just pinned her hope on a “higher court.”

“Prayer and belief in a higher court has been the family’s source of hope, not this administration’s actions. We pray that they—those in power (who could have made a difference but haven’t done anything)—would remember that they, too, [would] be judged,” she said.

CHR granted access to ‘Erap 5′ files in Burgos probe

In this file photo, Edith Burgos, mother of abducted activist Jonas Burgos, stands outside the national headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

In this file photo, Edith Burgos, mother of abducted activist Jonas Burgos, stands outside the national headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

Camille Diola | Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court allowed the Commission on Human Rights to scrutinize documents on the so-called “Erap Five” abduction case.

The magistrates said that one of the suspects in the abduction of Virgilio Eustaquio, Ruben Dionisio, Police Officer 3 Jose Justo Curameng, Jim Lucio Cabauatan and Dennis Ebona might be linked to the disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos.

Eustaquio earlier claimed that among those who abducted his group of former President Joseph Estrada’s supporters in 2006 was an abductor of Burgos.

Burgos’ mother, Edita Burgos, was also ordered by the high court to provide the Department of Justice (DOJ) a confidential new evidence.

Mrs. Burgos said the sealed evidence refers to an operation launched by the Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division and the 56th Infantry Battalion where Burgos was believed to have been kidnapped.

The court also ordered the DOJ to conduct another investigation on Burgos’ capture aided by the new evidence and Eustaquio’s affidavit.

Breakthrough

Editorial | Philippine Daily Inquirer

It’s a glimmer of hope—bittersweet vindication after years of dead ends and uncertainty.”

Edita Burgos said that in March 2011, after the Commission on Human Rights issued a report that found some military officers liable for the disappearance of her son Jonas Burgos, an agriculturist and peasant organizer who was abducted by a group of men and one woman from a restaurant at Ever Gotesco mall in Quezon City in April 2007. The CHR report named names; it identified Lt. Harry Baliaga as among those who had a hand in the abduction.

By that time it had been four years of relentless pursuit on the mother’s part to track her son. She didn’t come in blind. A mall security guard was able to note the plate number of the vehicle used in Jonas’ kidnapping, and the number was traced to a vehicle that had been impounded at the headquarters of the Army’s 56th Infantry Battalion in Norzagaray, Bulacan, since June 2006. That was an important clue that the military had a link to Jonas’ disappearance—but military personnel summoned by police investigators denied the accusation and claimed that the license plate might have been stolen from the camp.

Over the next years, the Burgos family would be met with repeated instances of evasion and stonewalling by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. When Edita wrote then AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon requesting a copy of an internal report detailing the involvement of the 56th IB in the case, the military turned down the request because, it said, the report was classified matter. When the report was finally released, it dealt, not with Jonas’ kidnapping, but with the loss of the license plate.

It was one preposterous dilatory move after another. When the Supreme Court, in July 2011, stepped into the case by ordering the AFP to produce Jonas based on the CHR report and new evidence it uncovered, the military simply said it could not comply with the ruling because Jonas was not in its custody. The high court also directed the Court of Appeals to relitigate the case, and here, in March 2013, nearly six years after her son’s disappearance, Edita Burgos made a bit of headway. The CA ruled that Jonas’ case was one of “enforced disappearance,” and that the military was responsible for it.

Baliaga wasn’t the only one mentioned; the CA decision said the military brass at the time—Generals Esperon, Romeo Tolentino, Juanito Gomez, Delfin Bangit, et al.—were “imputed with knowledge” about the disappearance due to command responsibility, and should have complied with the directive to “disclose all relevant facts concerning the case, as well as to investigate it with extraordinary diligence.” But, it added, the AFP’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation was “persuasive proof of the alleged cover-up of the military’s involvement in the enforced disappearance.”

Can anything be more damning? The accusation of official cover-up was an explosive one, but inexplicably, the military got not even a token reprimand. One of those implicated, Brig. Gen. Eduardo Año, was even promoted to head of the AFP’s intelligence service. Edita Burgos’ joy at the “glimmer of hope” she saw in March 2011 was short-lived. The AFP remained untouchable, even with the fresh evidence she presented showing Jonas’ name in a military “order of battle” and a mug shot of him that appeared to have been taken while he was in custody. In the last six years, she has taken her crusade to Malacañang, the CHR, the courts, even the United Nations, yet the perpetrators have remained scot-free.

But the tide may be turning. A Quezon City court has issued a warrant for the arrest of Baliaga, who will face trial for arbitrary detention. (He posted bail yesterday.) Six other respondents have been dropped from the charge sheet by the Department of Justice, which means Baliaga will be by his lonesome in court at this time. The idea, of course, that in snatching Jonas Burgos—a charge bolstered by several eyewitness testimonies—he acted alone, or that he did so without the authorization of higher military officers, is one more preposterous scenario that the Burgos family, as well as the nation, is being presented.

Still, it’s a breakthrough, no matter how small—and hopefully the foot in the door that would finally bring light to this sordid conspiracy of silence and cover-up. Baliaga isn’t the only one in the dock here; the AFP is, too.