It is with sadness that I greeted the news last Thursday that the Q.C.-RTC, Branch 216, dismissed the arbitrary detention charges against Major Harry Baliaga, Jr. in connection with the abduction and continued disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos.
Sadness because, as a mother, I can only imagine the emotional, psychological and even physical toll that Mrs. Editha Burgos has had to suffer, and is continuing to suffer, from the lack of certainty regarding her son’s fate. Lest we forget, this case is not just about punishing the people who may have been responsible for Jonas’s disappearance, but also finding some clue or lead as to what may have happened to Jonas.
Mrs. Editha Burgos’s quest, I would dare venture to say, is not about vengeance, or even a cold, hard pursuit of justice, but about something much more human and humane: finding some semblance of peace and closure to the suffering and pain that both Jonas and the family he has left behind have been suffering for more than a decade now.
A finding of guilt would have put at least one face to the perpetrators who are responsible for Jonas’s disappearance, with the hope that it would have impelled Maj. Baliaga and the rest of the AFP to help the family dig up the truth about what happened to Jonas 10 years ago; an acquittal, unfortunately, likely meant one more lead has irretrievably gone stone cold.
But my sadness comes with an understanding that the court likely had very little choice but to rule the way it did, when it found that the only evidence presented by the prosecution was that the vehicle used in Jonas’s abduction was impounded in a camp in Norzagaray, Bulacan, where the accused was once stationed. If that is the only evidence – then the court cannot be blamed for its ruling.
However, it does raise the question as to what had happened to the witnesses…. Where are they now? What happened to them? What happens now to the truth that they have been unable to share with the court? Will it lie forever lost along with the truth of what has become of Jonas?
For the sake of Mrs. Burgos, and in honor of her deceased husband and Jonas’s own father, Jose Burgos, Jr. – who was himself a martial law activist and press freedom fighter, and detained several times during the martial law regime – we hope that Mrs. Burgos’s longtime wish will nonetheless find fruition, i.e., that Jonas will be found and that justice will be served.
For myself, as someone who has by now been on “both sides of the fence” of the criminal justice system, as a former Justice Secretary and, now, someone who stands falsely accused with alleged crimes I have not committed, and who is now being forced to go through the rigors and expense of defending myself in court – I cannot help but lament the weaknesses and, in truth, the woeful irony in our criminal justice system.
How is it that, in the prosecution of crimes that heavily rely on testimonial evidence, such as the abduction of Jonas in a public place, the prosecution ends up having no witnesses to present? Yet, in the prosecution of crimes that, by law and by nature, require the presentation of physical evidence, the accused can be forced to stand trial even without an iota of an allegation of the corpus delicti of the offense?
But, as I have learned in my 233 days in detention, I can only harness these frustrations into something productive. I realize that there are crimes, such as homicide and abductions, where the first few hours and days are critical, i.e., leads have to be followed and testimonies of witnesses taken and preserved as soon as possible. Otherwise, hopes of identifying the perpetrators and, in the case of abductions, finding the victim alive, rapidly diminishes.
Hence, I intend to look into possible legislative measures, such as eyewitness and physical evidence collection reforms, that can be instituted to improve the chances of justice being obtained, not just in the cases of desaparecidos like Jonas or of EJK victims, but also of “ordinary” cases of homicide, abductions or kidnappings, especially given the speedy trial reforms instituted by the judiciary.
From every challenge and disappointment, something good has to arise. That is the challenge I want to take on in behalf of Jonas, Mrs. Burgos, and everyone for whom justice has become elusive to achieve. ###