Court acquits Army major in Burgos abduction case
Ten years after the disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos, the Army soldier who stood trial on arbitrary detention charges was acquitted on Thursday by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC).
In a decision read in the presence of Burgos’ mother and siblings at the Quezon City RTC Branch 216, Judge Alfonso Ruiz II said that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr.
The court said the prosecution had failed in its duty to prove Baliaga’s identity as “the person who abducted and arbitrarily detained” the then 37-year-old activist.
None of the eyewitnesses were able to identify the soldier in court during the four-year trial.
The ruling noted that testimonies of the witnesses were “hearsay” as these were based on statements by other people who claimed to have witnessed the abduction.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), which served as private prosecutor, said it was not able to locate the three key witnesses who were earlier presented for the writ of amparo proceedings in the Court of Appeals (CA).
They were restaurant busboy Jeffrey Cabintoy, management trainee Elsa Agasang and security guard Larry Marquez.
There was also no sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove Baliaga’s guilt, the court said. The only circumstantial evidence was the discovery of a vehicle—said to have been used to abduct Burgos—at the 5th Infantry Battalion Camp in Norzagaray, Bulacan province, where Baliaga was previously assigned.
On April 28, 2007, unidentified men dragged Burgos, who had worked with farmers, from a restaurant at Ever Gotesco Mall on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City, and forced him into a vehicle, reportedly with the plate No. TAB 194.
Since then, the Burgos family, led by Edita, has engaged in tireless legal battles and grassroot campaigns to keep the search alive in hopes of having Jonas back.
Speaking to reporters after the promulgation, Baliaga said he felt “mixed emotions,” but added he was “very happy that justice has been served [on my] part.”
He added: “I’m saddened also that Mrs. Burgos did not find justice.”
After the decision was read, Baliaga, who is out on bail, shook hands with Burgos’ 74-year-old mother.
‘Help find my son’
Edita Burgos later confided to reporters that she had told the soldier: “Maybe now you can help me find him.”
“If he’s not guilty, then he should help find my son … . I’m sure he knows [where he is],” she said. “As a father, he should know how it feels to lose a son. I challenge him to tell us where Jonas is.”
A 2013 CA ruling held Baliaga responsible for the disappearance of the political activist and ordered the military to exert efforts to bring justice to the Burgos case.
“We do not agree [with the decision of the Regional Trial Court], but we respect it,” she said.
“A mother cannot give up … . This is only a delay in our search for my son,” she said. “Maybe this is God’s will, but later on, we will find Jonas.”
Freed from detention
The Armed Forces of the Philippines on Thursday said it respected the court’s decision.
In a statement, the AFP public affairs chief, Col. Edgard Arevalo, said Baliaga was freed from detention at the Headquarters Service Group of the Philippine Army soon after his acquittal.
Since the case cannot be revived due to the rule on double jeopardy, NUPL president Edre Olalia said his group would consider filing a different case for violations of the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act.
The NUPL also said it hoped the Department of Justice would act on its motion for reconsideration that sought to once again include certain military officers in the charges.
They include Lt. Col. Melquiades Feliciano and Gen. Eduardo Año for arbitrary detention; and retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, retired Lieutenant Generals Romeo Tolentino and Alexander Yano, and retired Philippine National Police Director General Avelino Razon Jr. for obstruction of justice.
Both Año and Esperon now hold top posts in the Duterte administration, as AFP chief of staff and national security adviser, respectively. —WITH A REPORT FROM NIKKO DIZON
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