April 11, 2013

Oases or mirage

Edith Burgos, wife and partner of crusading, anti-dictatorship newspaperman, the late Jose “Joe” Burgos, is the personification of steadfast resolve as she files yet another motion to the Supreme Court in a bid to utilize new evidence to prove that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is behind the enforced disappearance of her 36-year-old son, Jonas.  In so doing, she rekindles the hope that he may still be found, dead or alive.

The Court of Appeals (CA) had earlier thrown out the claim of the military and police that the young Burgos fell prey to an “internal communist purge”.  Instead, it ruled that he was the victim of enforced disappearance and as such was entitled the protection of a writ of amparo.  This legal victory is owed to the unrelenting efforts, through both legal and metalegal means, of the Burgos family, their lawyers, other human rights victims and their families, and the local and international human rights community.

On the other hand, the new writ of amparo, touted as an “expeditious and effective relief given to any person whose right to life, liberty, and security is violated or threatened with violation by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee” has in most instances been rendered close to inutile and even couunterproductive.  It took more than five years before this CA decision was handed down.  Jonas has been missing for almost six years.

While the CA found Army Major Henry Baliaga Jr. “responsible” for the crime, it held the AFP and the PNP “accountable” for not undertaking “extraordinary diligence” in their investigations despite being “imputed with knowledge relating to the enforced disappearance” of Jonas Burgos.  In other words, the military was called to account for refusing to cooperate with the Burgos family, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and even the courts to determine what really happened to Jonas.  The police was rapped for patently misleading the investigation.

The CA directed the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP) to continue with their respective probes “until the persons responsible are brought to justice” and for the CHR to pursue its independent investigation with “full assistance” from the AFP and PNP.

However the pronouncements coming from the military and police establishments bode ill that anything will ever come out of their avowed intention to “comply and cooperate”.  The AFP pretends to want “closure” and “to move on” deliberately glossing over the fact that the military itself is implicated as complicit in, if not the mastermind of, the abduction. It has not conducted any probe on Major Baliaga or any of the other officers linked to the disappearance much less their "higher ups" who planned or at least knew of and approved the operation.  For its part, the PNP still questions the CA’s basis in overturning its bogus investigation.

Comes now the directive of President Benigno Aquino III to the Justice Department to conduct a "focused, dedicated and exhaustive" probe into the Burgos case in light of new evidence brought by Mrs. Burgos before the Supreme Court, including a photo of Jonas taken allegedly after he was abducted.  Malacañang says that this is a signal from the President that “culpability derived from hard evidence will exact accountability."

Bravo.  Yet we dare ask, why did Mr. Aquino, after being sworn to office as Chief Executive in 2010, not immediately order such an exhaustive probe?  As a member of the anti-Arroyo opposition, Mr. Aquino had denounced the former regime’s sordid human rights record and vowed to bring about change once in power.

Clearly Mr. Aquino has failed to take daangmatuwid utilizing his broad executive powers over the military and police in order to undertake a serious investigation into this celebrated human rights case.   Malacañang tolerated the obstructive tactics by the military and the sloppy investigation by the police.

Whatever evidences gathered that led to favorable court decisions have been the fruit of the Burgos family’s painstaking detective work precisely to counter the AFP/PNP bogus investigation.  It is also to the credit of CHR Commissioner Mamauag (a carry-over from the Arroyo-appointed CHR) that Major Baliaga was pinpointed as a direct perpetrator of the abduction.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Aquino has appointed General Eduardo Año, former head of the Intelligence Security Group of the Philippine Army, also impleaded in the habeas corpus and amparo cases as well as in the criminal complaint filed by Mrs. Burgos for her son’s abduction, as new chief of the Intelligence Service of the AFP.  Mr. Año was not confirmed by the Commission on Appointments due to the vigilance of Mrs. Burgos who had opposed it.

In truth, the Aquino presidency has failed miserably to prosecute human rights violations under the Arroyo regime.  Moreover, Mr. Aquino has closed his eyes to violations under his own watch.  In so doing he has further entrenched the climate of impunity and sanctified continuing violations.

As AFP Commander-in-chief, Mr. Aquino presides over Oplan Bayanihan, his administration’s updated counterinsurgency program, patterned after the 2009 US COIN Guide. Oplan Bayanihan utilizes such democratic phraseology as “respect for human rights”, “peace and development” and “winning the peace” but like the counterinsurgency programs before it, including the Arroyo regime’s brutal Oplan Bantay Laya, it has spawned the entire gamut of human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, illegal arrest and detention and displacement of civilian communities. Thus, the purported premium on safeguarding human rights is really nothing more than a deodorant meant to cover the stench of continuing impunity in HR violations by state security forces.

Once again, under the Aquino watch, there is no political will to prosecute and punish human rights violators especially amongst the military and in connection with counterinsurgency.  Mr. Aquino’s red-baiting of human rights defenders as “Leftists” and their findings as mere “propaganda” are key to the coddling of violators and the cover-up of a counterinsurgency program designed for repression.

The Aquino regime, and especially the Department of National Defense-AFP and Department of Interior and Local Government-PNP, continues to deny that the long string of gross human rights violations in this country is the result of a state policy abetted and supported by the US.  But the scope, frequency and complete absence of accountability for such violations show that these could not have been independent actions by rogue elements in the AFP and PNP led by mere junior officers up to the rank of Captain or Major.  Hence the systematic human rights violations by state security forces in the name of internal security continue unimpeded.

The CA decision follows close on the heels of last year's court decision indicting the notorious Gen. Palparan in the Empeno-Cadapan enforced disappearance case; and even more recently, the signing into law of the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act.  Still, these are the rare exceptions more than the rule.

With the AFP and PNP stonewalling, withholding evidence and worse, protecting the accused, the prospects of rendering justice remain dim.

What appear to be oases in the desert of injustice could very well turn out to be an illusion, a mirage, after all. #

Published in Business World
12-13 April 2013


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