SIX and a half years after having been first tagged as a participant in the April 28, 2007 abduction and disappearance of Jonas Burgos, Army Maj. Harry Baliaga was last week acquitted by a Quezon City regional trial court. He has consistently professed his innocence.
The case of the prosecution against Baliaga was built solely on the positive identification of Baliaga by an eyewitness, Jeffrey Cabintoy. But Cabintoy did not testify during the court proceedings. Only two members of the team created in June 2010 by the Commission on Human Rights, as directed by the Supreme Court, to investigate the Burgos case, testified. Thus, Cabintoy’s recollection of events on that fateful day in April 2007 became nothing but hearsay.
Cabintoy was a busboy trainee of Hapag Kainan Restaurant (located at the Ever Gotesco Mall on Commonwealth Avenue) where Burgos was abducted. Mrs. Edita Burgos—the victim’ mother—stated in her formal complaint filed in June 2011 that Cabintoy “provided the description to the police for the cartographic sketch of two persons, one male and one female.” Cabintoy also identified Baliaga as one of the abductors “when shown a photo of military officers.”
An email from an anonymous source had suggested that the CHR look for a captain who had been with 56th Infantry Battalion (Glenda Gloria, Rappler, April 28, 2012). The CHR investigative team struck gold when Cabintoy and a former (dismissed) soldier who had served with the 56th IB, identified Baliaga from a photo that the CHR investigators had found in the Facebook account of Baliaga’s classmates from the Philippine Military Academy Class 2000. “Both men [Cabintoy and the former soldier] always look pensive, probably because of the pathetic plight they are in right now,” said the CHR report. “It comes as a surprise therefore to the team when they could hardly hide their smile upon seeing the face of Baliaga, as if they know the man very well” (the CHR report, dated March 15, 2011, quoted by the Supreme Court on February 4, 2014, ruling on one of Edita Burgos’ petitions).
The 56th IB covers Bulacan, the area where Jonas Burgas was operating as “the key NPA intelligence officer,” according to Glenda Gloria (2012). A year later, Gloria wrote that, “At least 26 activists from the province have been abducted under the Arroyo administration. This comes as no surprise … Bulacan was a top source of rebel recruits, the biggest source of revolutionary taxation in the whole Central Luzon] region (at least P40 million a month in 2005 from Army estimates)” (Rappler, April 3, 2013).
No, this is not to justify abduction or killing, but simply to put Jonas Burgos in perspective. He was a legitimate military target but the method of ‘neutralization’ was questionable, if the military indeed did it. The AFP never admitted having a hand in Jonas’ disappearance, despite several pieces of evidence and circumstances pointing to them. The Court of Appeals on March 18, 2013, placed, with finality, the responsibility and accountability for the disappearance of Jonas with the military, and the latter did not appeal the ruling.
The CA also “found, by substantial evidence, that Lt. Baliaga participated in the abduction, on the basis of Cabintoy’s positive identification” (quoted by the Supreme Court in the February 4, 2014 ruling). Baliaga was formally charged with arbitrary detention.
Positive identification is king in the Philippine justice system and prevails over alibi. Baliaga’s alibi that he was visiting his parents in the Mountain Province after having finished a couple of Special Forces and Airborne courses earlier in the month of April, was brushed aside.
According to the New England Innocence Project, a program that through DNA testing has proven the innocence of a number of convicted Americans, “eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions…, playing a role in more than 70 percent of convictions overturned.” The Innocence Project said that “memory does not operate like a videotape. Scientific research has shown that memory is a constructive, dynamic, and selective process that can be influenced by many factors. Researchers recommend that eyewitness identification be treated as trace evidence that can be distorted, contaminated or degrade over time.”
Cabintoy helped the police come up with cartographic sketches of two suspects immediately after the crime but they weren’t cartographic sketches of Baliaga. Yet, the CHR claimed that Cabintoy, more than three years after the incident, could hardly hide his smile, as if he knew the man so well, upon seeing Baliaga’s photo, and even gave a “blow by blow” account of the incident, including comments allegedly made by Baliaga during the incident. Cabintoy disappeared years ago while in the custody of the CHR (Interaksyon, October 12 2017).
Convicting an innocent man won’t bring justice to the Burgos family. The numerous factors pointing to the military in the immediate aftermath of the crime never included Maj. Baliaga. He seems to have been considered guilty by mere association.