Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 216 Judge Alfonso Ruiz II acquitted Maj. Harry Baliaga, Jr. of arbitrary detention of farmer-activist Jonas Burgos. Today is the promulgation of the case after more than half a decade of litigation and after the number of accused has dwindled to only one, Baliaga.
The decision was read before 10am today.
“The prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the identity of accused Harry Baliaga, Jr. as the person who abducted and arbitrarily detained Jonas,” read a part of the decision that ended with Baliaga being acquitted of the crime penalized in Article 124 of the Revised Penal Code.
Jonas, abducted in a mall in Quezon City, is still missing after 10 years.
Jonas’ brother, filmmaker Jose Luis, left the court room upon hearing the word ‘acquitted.’
Jonas’ mother, Edita, known freedom of expression and press freedom stalwart along with her late husband Joe Burgos credited for burgeoning mosquito press amid censorship during the Martial Law years and then staunch human rights advocate since the disappearance of Jonas in 2007, stayed to hear the rest of the decision.
Baliaga approached and sat beside Edita after the whole decision was read. Edita said Baliaga did not say a word but offered his hand. The army major said Edita asked him to help them find the wrongdoers if he is indeed innocent.
In an interview with the media, Baliaga said he is saddened there is still no justice for Edita’s son.
Edita addressed human rights advocates and supporters outside the trial court.
“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 nga 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. Hindi tayo natalo, mga kasama,” said Edita.
Karapatan, an alliance for human rights, called for an indignation rally tomorrow, October 13, 10am at the Department of National Defense (DND), also known as Camp Aguinaldo, Gate 2, along EDSA near Santolan Road, Quezon City. Said action is “to condemn the continuing impunity under the Duterte regime, with the exoneration of the perpetrators in the case of Jonas Burgos.”
“We will find Jonas. For now siguro, hindi pa panahon. Pero darating din ang panahon (it’s not time. But the time will come). Jonas, wherever you are, you know we won’t give up. You know we will continue looking for you,” said Edita.
The nine-page decision that acquitted Baliaga found that the prosecution failed in its duty to prove the identity of the accused as malefactor as there were no eyewitnesses testified to identify the accused as one of those responsible for the disappearance of Jonas. 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. The court ruled that these testimonies are hearsay in nature.
The decision also said there was no circumstantial evidence to prove the guilt of the accused. The only circumstantial evidence presented was the discovery of the vehicle were Jonas was forcibly taken in a camp where Baliaga was previously assigned.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), acting as private prosecutor, recounted the record of the case proceedings of the disappearance of Jonas in anticipation of today’s promulgation of the decision on the case against Baliaga.
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.
Año is currently the highest ranking officer of the AFP.
During the Preliminary Conference of the case before the trial court that issued the decision today, Baliaga admitted the jurisdiction of the court and that he is the same person charged in the information and arraigned in the case. When Edita testified, she was able to categorically and positively identify accused Baliaga in court as the person pinpointed by the eyewitnesses.
But unlike in the earlier amparo proceedings in the Court of Appeals, none of the eyewitnesses to the abduction of Jonas could be presented again in the trial court as they could no longer be located.
The NUPL said that they respect the decision of the court but they disagree with it.