Seeing the light
For some reason, the Court of Appeals ruling dated March 18 was not made public until March 27—in the middle of Holy Week. That made a Lenten interpretation of the decision finding an Army major responsible and the Philippine Army itself accountable for the abduction of activist Jonas Burgos all but inevitable.
“He has the opportunity to make things right by saying the whole truth,” Edita Burgos, Jonas’ mother and the tireless petitioner, said of the suspect Harry Baliaga. “Here is a singular chance, perhaps from the Lord, to have the courage to reveal the details related to my son’s disappearance. The courage to say the truth is my prayer for all this Lent.”
Even Edre Olalia, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, used the language of the season to express his group’s hope that the Court of Appeals ruling would not be “another Pyrrhic victory that resurrects false hopes for the crucified lives of the victims’ kin who have long suffered and waited.”
For a people who view history through the frame of martyrdom, these reflections not only flow naturally. They shape reality; Burgos, and University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, who were abducted in 2006, and the many others like them who were forcibly disappeared or killed, are martyrs, their suffering mirrored in the “crucified lives” of their kin.
Burgos, abducted by four men and a woman in 2007, in the middle of a crowded mall, is the face of the modern-day desaparecido, victim of an extreme counterinsurgency measure launched during the Arroyo years. The wave of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the middle of the decade prompted the Supreme Court to introduce a new remedy, the writ of amparo, in 2007. The recent Court of Appeals decision is a judgment rendered on one such petition, consolidated with another petition for habeas corpus.
In 2008, in a panel discussion hosted by the Philippine Judicial Academy, Associate Court of Appeals Justice Remedios Salazar-Fernando reflected on the difficulties of handling cases involving extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, based on the court’s experience with the first two amparo petitions (including the one filed by Burgos’ mother). “Probably the most serious roadblock to any investigation and prosecution of EJK/ED cases would be a claim of governmental or military privilege on the part of the respondents…. From our experience… the claim of governmental or military privilege almost always immediately stops the proceedings [in] its tracks…. Worse, attempts to suppress or withhold vital and relevant documents or information are made invoking such privilege. If allowed, it will completely jeopardize the entire proceedings.”
We join the many who are glad to see that the Court of Appeals has pushed back against the institutional efforts of the country’s security forces (the Philippine National Police has also come in for censure). We note in particular that the accumulated weight of their deliberate noncooperation has finally forced the court to see things for what they are.
In 2008, the court held that the (uncontroverted) evidence showing that the license plate on the vehicle used to abduct Burgos could be traced to a military compound was not enough to link the Armed Forces directly to the abduction. “We have meticulously perused the evidence but found it wanting to establish the claimed direct connection between the abductors of Jonas and the military.”
In the March 18 decision, however, the Court of
Appeals—to quote Chair Etta Rosales of the Commission on Human Rights, who had a copy of the ruling—said the “unwillingness to cooperate in the investigation conducted by the CHR” was “persuasive proof of the alleged cover-up of the military’s involvement in the enforced disappearance.”
Finally, the light.
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