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.

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.