By Baretang Bikolnon Staff
The fight for justice continues despite the acquittal of an Army officer yesterday over the disappearance of farmer-activist Jonas Burgos.
Philippine Army Major Harry Ballaga Jr. was acquitted by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 216 of arbitrary detention charges in Jonas Burgos abduction case after QC RTC Branch Judge Alfonso Ruiz II found the testimonies of at least three Commission on Human Rights (CHR) witnesses lacking in probative value.
Burgos’ prosecuting attorney Edre Olalia of National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) said the setback is not end of their quest for justice. He said they are considering the filing of an enforced disappearance case against Maj. Baliaga.
Burgos camp is going to study the legal opinion that despite the acquittal of Major Baliaga, their camp can still file a case for enforced disappearance which was enacted in 2009.
“We believe that what the Supreme Court said is the right decision: that the AFP is accountable for the disappearance of Jonas, that all these high ranking officials are responsible for his disappearance. And they were ordered to surface Jonas. ‘Yun ang aming kinakapitan. Hanggang ngayon, apat na taon na, hindi pa din inaaksyunan ang appeal namin to cite in contempt ‘yung hindi nag-comply ng order na i-surface si Jonas (That is what we are holding on to. Until now, after four years, our appeal to cite in contempt those who did not comply with the order to surface Jonas has not been acted upon)…To the perpetrators, know that justice will be served. Maybe not now. But it will be served because God is not sleeping,” said Edita Burgos, mother of missing farmer-activist Jonas.
After more than half a decade of litigation, the court cited weak evidence and witnesses in the nine-page decision that acquitted Baliaga.
“The prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the identify of Harry Ballaga Jr. as the person who abducted and arbitrarily detained Jonas Burgos,” part of the Court’s promulgation said.
The only witnesses presented were those who affirmed Baliaga’s identity from eyewitnesses’ testimonies in previous hearings that merited the Burgos family a successful decision, such as the writ of amparo.
“This kind (CHR’s) of testimony is hearsay in nature and, the Court is constrained to say, has little to no probative value enough to sustain the accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” it added.
In the present case, the only circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution was the discovery that a vehicle with plate no. TAB-194 was earlier apprehended and later impounded at the 5th Infantry Battalion Camp located at San Mateo, Norzagaray, Bulacan, where the accused Baliaga was previously assigned.
According to the Court’s promulgation, this circumstantial evidence standing alone will not reach the quantum of proof required to overcome the constitutional presumption of innocence.
NUPL, acting as private prosecutors to the case, said their difficulty was the disappearance of eyewitnesses that could have made their case stronger.
“We ask the eyewitnesses to come forward. Because after the Court of Appeals hearings, they could not be found for reasons we could not divine, except they were probably harassed, threatened or for any other reason that did not work for [the quest for] justice for Jonas,” NUPL’s Atty Olalia said.
“It’s not the end. There are still people out there who should be made accountable, including General [Armed Forces Chief of Staff Eduardo] Año, General [National Security Adviser Hermogenes] Esperon and a lot of other military officers,” Olalia said.
The complaint for Arbitary Detention filed before the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2011 was against Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr., an officer at the Bravo Company of the 56th IB; Lt. Col. Melquiades Feliciano, who is Maj. Baliaga’s Commanding Officer; and then Col. Eduardo Año, then Philippine Army Intelligence Service Group (ISG) Chief.
The complaint for Obstruction of Justice or violation of Presidential Decree No. 1829 was also filed against then Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief-of-Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Philippine Army Chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Tolentino, Tolentino’s successor Lt. Gen. Alexander B. Yano and then Philippine National Police (PNP) Chieg Dir. Gen. Avelino Razon Jr.
However, in the Review Resolution issued by the Reviewing Prosecutor of the DOJ, only Maj. Baliaga was recommended charged with Arbitrary Detention in court.
Charges against high ranking officers of the AFP—against Feliciano and Año for Arbitrary Detention and against Esperon, Tolentino, Yano and Razon for Obstruction of Justice–were recommended dismissed in 2013.
NUPL said records also showed that then-Army ISG chief Año conducted the special monitoring and surveillance operations on certain individuals that included Jonas Burgos. Jonas was reportedly listed in an “Order of Battle” allegedly with links to the NPA.
Meanwhile, Karapatan, an alliance for human rights, called for an indignation rally today at the Department of National Defense (DND) along EDSA near Santolan Road, Quezon City to condemn the continuing impunity under the Duterte regime, with the exoneration of the perpetrators in the case of Jonas Burgos.
According to Karapatan, the Macapagal-Arroyo regime and its henchmen, then AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon (currently National Security Adviser) and then Chief of Phil. Army Intelligence Service Group Col. Eduardo Ano (currently the AFP Chief of Staff), among others, unleashed a brutal military campaign against activists, using an order of battle list, and instigated at least 1,206 extrajudicial killings, 206 enforced disappearances and other human rights violations (HRVs).
“Despite compelling evidence and testimonies on the role of the AFP in Jonas’ disappearance and after several legal remedies pursued by the Burgos family, the AFP denied responsibility for abduction of Jonas and refused to surface him,” said Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of Karapatan.
“Instead of prosecuting the brains behind such violations, the BS Aquino III regime absolved all the big fishes in the Burgos case, including Esperon and Ano, through a decision of the Department of Justice in 2013. This decision was again despite an earlier Court Appeals ruling that the AFP is accountable for enforced disappearance of Jonas and new evidence submitted to the Supreme Court on the involvement of Ano et. Al,” Palabay added.
There were also at least 333 victims of extrajudicial killings, 29 victims of enforced disappearance and thousands who forcibly evacuated due to military operations under BS Aquino III.
Enforced disappearances continue under Duterte, with four documented cases of desaparecidos, and the climate of impunity has worsened, with the accused perpetrators in the Jonas Burgos case in power according to Palabay. (Baretang Bikolnon/with reports from Kodao and Manila Today)