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The family members of the forcibly disappeared farmers’ rights activist Jonas Burgos got something completely unexpected today: hope for justice.

People affiliated with the Philippine armed forces allegedly abducted Burgos from a Manila shopping mall in April 2007. Burgos was never seen again and the military has repeatedly denied any role in his disappearance.  But today, Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr. of the Philippine Army surrendered to a Manila court for his alleged role in Burgos’ disappearance. He is now out on bail. The court’s decision to prosecute Baliaga for “arbitrary detention” is supported by eyewitnesses who have identified him as one of Burgos’ abductors. 

Baliaga’s prosecution is a long-overdue symbolic victory in the Philippines for justice against rights abuses and to end impunity for enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

However, the Philippine government extended minimal effort in the search for Jonas Burgos and in identifying and prosecuting his abductors. It was the tireless crusade of his mother, Edita Burgos, along with human rights groups, that prodded authorities to pursue the case and, ultimately, issue the warrant. Baliaga was only charged after Edita Burgos petitioned the Supreme Court, which in turn ordered the Commission on Human Rights to investigate Burgos’ abduction. The military and Baliaga have repeatedly denied the allegations, and military spokesmen said on Friday they welcomed Baliaga’s surrender as a chance for him to clear his name.

While the outcome of Baliaga’s case is uncertain, his surrender lends a needed boost to the Philippines’ human rights movement – if only because he is among the very few military officers to be prosecuted for human rights violations. The case sends a faint but needed signal that the government of President Benigno Aquino III may finally deliver on its unfulfilled promises on human rights. Jonas Burgos and the hundreds of members of leftist political parties, political activists, critical journalists, and outspoken clergy who have been killed or forcibly disappeared in the Philippines during the past decade deserve nothing less.

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