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CHR tells SC: Army officer behind Jonas Burgos abduction

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) found “overwhelming evidence" that a junior Philippine Army officer was “the principal abductor" of political activist Jonas Burgos, who disappeared in 2007. In a report submitted to the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday, March 15, the CHR tagged 1st Lt. Harry Baliaga Jr. of the Army's 56th Infantry Battalion (IB) based in Bulacan province as the “principal by direct participation in the abduction of Burgos." Under criminal law, a principal by direct participation is someone who by his direct acts commits the acts constituting the crime, which in this case, was kidnapping and serious illegal detention or arbitrary detention. In June last year, the high court declined to rule on a petition for amparo filed by Jonas’ mother because it found insufficient reports submitted to it by the police and the military. The SC thus ordered the CHR to conduct an investigation. (See: SC orders CHR to probe Jonas Burgos' disappearance) Complying with the SC order, the CHR probed into the Burgos disappearance and submitted the March 15 report. In its findings, the CHR relied on the positive identification by witnesses Jeffrey Cabintoy and detained soldier Edmond Dag-uman, who confirmed that Baliaga was his former company commander at the 56th IB. “Jeffrey was able to give a graphic description spontaneously, to boot, the blow-by-blow account of the incident, including the initial positioning of the actors, especially Baliaga, who even approached and talked to him and prevented him from interfering in their criminal act," said the CHR. GMA News Online made several calls to AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta to get the military's comment, but he could not be reached as of posting time. Burgos, son of the late journalist and staunch anti-dictatorship fighter Jose Burgos, was abducted April 28, 2007 allegedly by military personnel while he was having lunch at a restaurant inside the Ever Gotesco Mall in Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City. His abduction happened during the regime of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who has been criticized for allegedly turning a blind eye on extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and human rights violations supposedly committed by the military against Leftist activists and journalists. Police, military cover-up? In its report, the CHR also slammed the Philippine National Police's Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), which said that Burgos might have been abducted by New People's Army (NPA) rebels. “As regards the PNP-CIDG, the positive identification of former 56th IB officer Lt. Harry A. Baliaga Jr. as one of the principal abductors has effectively crushed the theory of the CIDG witnesses that the NPAs abducted Jonas," said the CHR report. “Baliaga's true identity and affiliation with the military have been established by overwhelming evidence and corroborated by detained former Army trooper Dag-uman," the commission added. The CHR likewise hinted at a possible cover-up by “some police and military elites." “Most, if not all the actual abductors would have been identified had it not been for what is otherwise called as evidentiary difficulties shamelessly put up by some police and military elites," said the CHR. The commission also recommended to the SC to order Baliaga, the 56th IB in Bulacan, and the 7th Infantry Division headquarters in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija “to produce the living body of Jonas Burgos before this court." Writ of amparo The CHR also recommended to the SC to issue a writ of amparo as sought by Burgos' mother, Edita. “Viewed in light of the foregoing considerations and in the highest interest of the rule of law, justice and human rights, the Commission on Human Rights strongly recommends the issuance by the Honorable Supreme Court of a writ of amparo in favor of the petitioner [Edita Burgos] and against the respondents," said the CHR. “The CHR finds that the enforced disappearance of Jonas Joseph T. Burgos had transpired; and that his constitutional rights to life, liberty, and security were violated by the government have been fully determined," added the commission. The writ of amparo is a remedy granted by the court “through judicial orders of protection, production, inspection and other relief to safeguard one's life and liberty." According to former Chief Justice Renato Puno, the writ of amparo "shall hold public authorities, those who took their oath to defend the Constitution and enforce our laws, to a high standard of official conduct and hold them accountable to our people." In October 2008, the SC issued its first amparo decision in favor of brothers Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo, who were reportedly abducted by a paramilitary unit in Bulacan in 2006. The two were able to escape in August 2007, after 18 months of torture. Supreme Court's order to the CHR In June 2010, the Supreme Court ordered the CHR to conduct an extensive investigation into Burgos' disappearance. The high court said it cannot yet rule on Edita Burgos' petition for the writ of amparo because it was dissatisfied with the findings of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police. Edita was asking the SC to reverse the July 17, 2008 ruling of the Court of Appeals dismissing the case against soldiers believed to be behind the kidnapping. The SC's resolution read: “Considering the findings of the CA and our review of the records of the present case, we conclude that the PNP and the AFP have so far failed to conduct an exhaustive and meaningful investigation into the disappearance of Jonas Burgos; and to exercise the extraordinary diligence (in the performance of their duties) that the Rule on the Writ Amparo requires." CHR asks: What’s the military hiding? In its report to the Supreme Court, the CHR questioned why The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) of the AFP, through a certain General Roa, declined to furnish documents pertaining to Burgos' disappearance. “The deliberate refusal of TJAG Roa to provide the CHR with the requested documents... created the disputable presumption that AFP personnel were responsible for the abduction and that their superiors would be found accountable, if not responsible, for the crime committed," said the CHR. “This observation finds support in the disputable presumption ‘that evidence wilfully suppressed would be adverse if produced,’" it added. That is to say, the documents requested for but suppressed by TJAG can be presumed under the rules of evidence to support the conclusion that Burgos was abducted by the military. Other recommendations In its report, the CHR also listed for the Supreme Court the following recommendations:
  • To order the Department of Justice to immediately cover witnesses Jeffrey Cabintoy and Elsa Agasang under its Witness Protection Program. Cabintoy and Agasang worked at the Ever Gotesco Mall restaurant where Burgos was abducted.
  • To order the DOJ to file the kidnapping/enforced disappearance, and/or arbitrary detention charges against Baliaga, “as principal by direct participation in the abduction of Burgos."
  • To order the DOJ to file obstruction of justice charges against Emerito Lipio, Marlon Manuel, and Meliza Concepcion-Reyes, “for giving false or fabricated information" to the CIDG that Burgos was abducted by the NPA. The CHR added that the three had “wilfully refused" to cooperate with the CHR's probe.
  • To require a certain General Roa of the military's TJAG and the AFP “to explain their failure and/or refusal to provide the CHR copies of documents relevant to the case of Burgos."
  • To order the DOJ to review and determine the liability of officers and personnel in the Army's 56th IB and 7th ID, “relative to the torture and/or other forms of ill-treatment of Edmund Dag-uman while he was in detention in October 2005."
– MRT/JV, GMA News