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.

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