Edita Burgos still holds out hope

Erika Sauler | Inqurer.net
October 31, 2014

Edita Burgos

MANILA, Philippines–Edita Burgos still lives with the hope that her missing son, farmer-political activist Jonas Burgos, will one day knock on her door and announce that he’s home.

But after seven and a half years of searching, which included examining yet-to-be identified tortured bodies, the 71-year-old mother is prepared to accept the worst.

“We are idealistic in the sense that we still hope to find him, and realistic to accept the possibility that he could already be gone,” Edita said in an interview, after taking the stand at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court in the arbitrary detention case against Army Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr.

Baliaga was declared responsible for the enforced disappearance of Jonas in the investigation report of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and in the decision of the Court of Appeals in the habeas corpus and amparo petitions filed by Edita.

“I’m not angry with him,” Edita said. “I’ve already forgiven. But we are here to find the truth. Just like a mother gets angry when a child breaks something. The anger will melt away but the child still has to clean up the mess.”

The prosecution on Thursday presented Edita as the first witness to identify Baliaga, to talk about the abduction and subsequent search for Jonas and to prove damages.

The cost of searching for Jonas has run up to millions, using up the family’s savings, Edita’s retirement benefits, as well as the death and retirement benefits of her late husband, press freedom advocate Jose Burgos Jr.

Broken heart

“The impact of the loss of my son is unquantifiable. You cannot put a price to the broken heart, the broken family, the loss of a son,” Edita said.

Baliaga, sitting on the second row in court, mostly kept his arms crossed and displayed a slight frown while Edita testified.

After the trial, Baliaga said he understood the Burgoses’ grief, but “it seems they also want my mother to feel that way by taking me away from her.”

Baliaga said he was teaching at the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City when he was tagged in the abduction and was subsequently assigned to the Army headquarters in Taguig City. He said he liked his PMA post because he was near his family in the Mountain Province.

“Whenever they (Burgoses) look at me, I can see that they’re very angry with me. I’m just hoping that later on, the truth will come out,” Baliaga said.

Asked about this, Edita said, “I was not the one who concluded that he was responsible for the abduction. It was the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. I’m even doing him a favor. I’m giving him the opportunity that they did not give to Jonas, to have his day in court.”

“They took my son’s right to defend himself,” Edita added.

Edita told the court that the family called and sent text messages to Jonas when he did not come home on April 28, 2007.

‘Let’s talk tomorrow’

Jonas only answered the following day and he was incoherent. Edita kept asking where he was and why he did not come home. He only said, “I was taking a bath” and “Sorry, let’s talk tomorrow,” then the line went dead.

After a press conference to announce that Jonas was missing, Edita received a call informing her that her son must have been the man who was kidnapped from the Ever Gotesco Mall in Quezon City.

The Burgoses rushed to the mall and a waitress said she saw Jonas being taken away by a group of about four men and a woman. The mall security guard took down the license plate of the group’s vehicle and it was traced to a vehicle impounded in the camp of the 56th Infantry Battalion in Bulacan province, where Baliaga was then a first lieutenant.

Despite the granting of the habeas corpus and amparo petitions, Jonas has not been located. Edita has sought help from various police headquarters, several congressmen and senators, including now President Aquino.

She sought the assistance from the CHR, the National Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. She also brought her case to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the US Congress and the European Parliament.

“If Jonas was found and he learned that I did not look for him, that would break his heart. I don’t want that to happen. I want him to know that we really looked for him up to the end,” Edita said in the interview.

In 2013, somebody gave Edita a photo showing Jonas after his abduction and confidential military documents on his apprehension and psychosocial processing that the Supreme Court ordered not to be publicly disclosed.

“When I imagine what they must be doing to my son, it’s torture to think that he’s still alive. We still have hope. But if he’s already gone, he’s not suffering anymore, he’s in the hands of God,” Edita said.

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.