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Seeking Jonas: The search for a missing son in the Philippines

Jonas Burgos was abducted in April 2007 by Philippine security forces and is still missing, writes his mother

Edita Tronqued-Burgos, Manila

Edita Tronqued-Burgos, Manila

Updated: September 18, 2018 04:38 AM GMT
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Seeking Jonas: The search for a missing son in the Philippines

Edita Burgos holds a picture of her son, Jonas, during a demonstration in Manila in 2013 to demand justice for victims of enforced disappearances in the Philippines. Jonas has been missing since 2007. (Photo by Vincent Go/ucanews.com)

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The anguish of not knowing is one of the most difficult agonies to endure.

My son Jonas' enforced disappearance has brought me to this conclusion. To be in a suspended state of yearning for 11 years is not easy.

One swings from a nagging dread of finding him dead, his bones scattered in a shallow watery grave, to the much preferred but potentially distressing discovery that he is alive but forever damaged from years of torture.

Jonas T. Burgos was abducted on April 28, 2007, while having his lunch, alone and unarmed, in a restaurant in the heart of Quezon City. He was 37 years old.

The abduction, one of the most prominent cases of enforced disappearances in the Philippines to date, was considered just short of scandalous considering that his father, my late husband, was a prominent publisher-editor who fought the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos and helped in the battle to restore democracy in the country.

With his father having already succumbed to a lingering illness, I had to take the lead in the search.

Within a few days the family traced the car plate of the vehicle, TAB 194, used by the abductors, to a vehicle impounded in the 56th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, an army camp located in Bulacan province, north of Metro Manila.

A complaint was filed with the Commission on Human Rights four days after the abduction. In the following two months, a petition for the writ of Habeas Corpus was filed with the Court of Appeals.

The writ was granted, but the military simply denied they had Jonas.

A resolution submitted by the Court of Appeals in June 2010 revealed serious lapses in the investigation by the police, prompting the Supreme Court to direct the human rights commission to reinvestigate the case.

The investigation produced new evidence, notably the testimony of an eyewitness who identified one of the abductors as Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr. in open court.

Six years after the abduction, in March 2013, the Supreme Court resolved that Jonas' abduction was a case of enforced disappearance. It held the Philippine Army responsible for the abduction, and ruled that Major Harry Baliaga Jr. et al were accountable.

Having granted both the writ of Habeas Corpus and the writ of Amparo ("Amparo" means protection in Spanish), the Supreme Court ordered the military to return Jonas to his family.

However it was a hollow victory: Jonas remains missing, and nobody has been punished for whatever happened to him.

The Supreme Court's decision prompted the filing of a case of kidnapping and illegal detention against the suspects.

The Department of Justice found "probable cause in filing charges" against Harry Baliaga Jr. and other so-called John Does, but exonerated the other military officers who had been implicated.

Instead, the officers were promoted despite our opposition. They now occupy high positions in the government and military.

The final legal blow to the family was when Baliaga was acquitted by a regional trial court in October 2017 on the grounds that we were not able to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that he took Jonas.

At the same time as seeking relief through the domestic courts, the family also appealed to and collaborated with international communities such as the Working Group for Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance of the United Nations, as well as other international and local human rights groups.

For 11 years, Jonas' family has endured the consequences of a missing breadwinner, protector, brother and son. His daughter, now 12, still hopes one day she will see her father again.

But there is no relief in sight as of yet.

The case is a clear example of why impunity and tyranny continue to afflict the Philippines. The evidence established the guilt of the accused, and the court ruled accordingly. The case was won, but the battle was lost. Those accountable were not made to pay.

There has been no dearth in fidelity, nor of tenacity among members of the family, nor has there been any shortage of generous people, volunteers and pro-bono services in all the man-made ruts and pits of the sometimes agonizing, sometimes dangerous path in the search for Jonas.

At every turn, the family was accompanied by prayers, and "God's providence" was so felt. When someone in the family would falter, a Simon of Cyrene and Veronica were sent our way.

So what remains? Leaving such a situation unresolved and tagged "Missing for 11 years" is unacceptable. The family prays that the Lord will soften the hearts of the perpetrators, prick the consciences of those "who know" what happened, and enlighten the minds of our guardians of justice who are legally enshrined to pass judgment.

The authorities must realize that the only way to earn to restore the confidence of the people and show the integrity of our leadership would be to completely implement the law, the first step of which is to clean the ranks of the military and weed out the criminals from their midst.

 

Edita Tronqued-Burgos is a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. She heads the Free Jonas Burgos Movement, is council member of the Desaparecidos and the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance. Her son, Jonas Burgos was abducted in April 2007 by security forces. He is still missing.

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