>> Sunday, March 29, 2009

March Fianza
Dissecting James Balao’s case

I have known James Balao since our college days when we used to hang around the music bars in Baguio after school. That was the time when the in-things were music, laughter, mini-concerts, dirt bikes and conversing with friends. His brother Winston, sister Nonnete and their cousins were also in the circle of folk and country music buffs.

It has been more than six months since James Balao, a member of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines and co-founder of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) has been missing. His work with the CPA involved research and teaching about issues on tribal conflict, ancestral lands, agriculture liberalization, serving as the mediator in clan and tribal conflicts.

James left his rented apartment at Fairview Barangay, Baguio City in the early morning of September 17 and was to visit his parents at Km. 5 in La Trinidad, Benguet when five men in a white SUV forcibly took him at gunpoint. His abduction came four months after he told family and friends that he was under constant surveillance.

In their search, his family and friends in the organization may have followed the process which they know was proper, including the filing of a petition for the issuance of the Writ of Amparo in court. However, there are questions which I believe could help James’ case and which are vital in helping unravel the mystery regarding his disappearance. These questions bug my mind as they remain unanswered to this day.

One, I have not heard of any investigation conducted on his companions in his rented place. Are they missing too or have they gone into hiding voluntarily? We have to know. Surely, he had a friend or two in that apartment.

Second, James’ belongings in that apartment should have been kept intact and un-tampered as part of the whole evidence that could have helped shed light on his disappearance. Were his belongings transferred in the presence of the family, police or barangay officials?

Third, since this is a case of abduction which is a criminal act, it is but proper for the authorities to find out who took out his belongings from the apartment. Where are his things at Fairview ?
I understand the predicament of investigation work which now faces a blank wall especially when important evidences in places linked to crime victims are not preserved for investigation purposes. Indeed, lapses on investigation procedures are encountered because other factors interfere with evidences and crime scenes.

Fourth, Why did James not stop at their old house at Km.5 where his parents lived but instead, went straight to Tomay Barangay where he was abducted and which is about three or more kilometers away from where he said he was supposed to go?

If he dropped at Km.5, his abductors could not have carried out their evil act because that section of the highway is crowded anytime of the day. There could have been several witnesses who personally knew him if the abduction happened there.

James is from Km.5 and probably, Km5 boys know him too. He knows that aside from being the loading and unloading area for all jeepneys plying the Baguio-Trinidad-Acop route, Km.5 is the central business district of La Trinidad that contains a police station, a public parking area and market center at the other side of the road.

Fifth, was it possible that James was trying to lose a surveillance team, reason why he did not stop at Km5, or was he to meet up with someone at Tomay? Why Tomay… why not Km5 or Km6 or anywhere along the Trinidad road where there are people who may be possible witnesses?

Sixth, did he talk to any person at the Tomay store before his abductors came? If he did, was it possible that his abductors knew the person he talked to, and that everyone, including James, was waiting for something to happen in that somewhat quick ‘reunion’?

Seventh, curiosity creeps when I ask myself why in such an insecure situation and in a considerable length of time travel, James was not able to call or text a single message to anyone. Was he on lowbat or no load…? We do not know.

In a recent decision in Balao et. al. v. President Arroyo, et. al. RTC Judge Benigno Galacgac said, the likely motive for James’ disappearance was “his activist or political leanings,” which includes his life’s work advocating for indigenous peoples rights. That too has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Still fresh in the mind are the murders of Lean Alejandro, Rolando Olalia, Ka Popoy Lagman, Romulo Kintanar, peasant leader Raymundo Tejeno in Bondoc Peninsula , Akbayan Party member Florente Ocmen in Agusan del Norte, and many others that happened just lately. It was not clear, however, if they were killed by government forces as some were reported to have been ‘eliminated’ by their former peers. James’ case is different.

Below are excerpts from the testimony of Rev. Canon Brian Grieves and Alexander D. Baumgarten on behalf of The Episcopal Church that was submitted to the United States House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Sub-Committee on State, Foreign Operations on March 18, 2009 on the disappearance of James… and I quote:

“Over the past three years, the military has been publicly denouncing the CPA as a “front organization” for the Communist party and accusing James of being a leader in the Communist party in the Cordilleras . As a result, CPA members are being assassinated, forcibly abducted, and tortured.

James Balao is clearly not alone. In 2008, the State Department reported: “According to local human rights NGOs, government forces were responsible for disappearances. By year's end the CHR investigated 20 new cases of enforced disappearances, abductions, and kidnappings involving 27 victims.” End of quote.

With these, they have earlier written the US Congress in February, and I quote:

“The perpetrators of these abuses continue to enjoy impunity and there is strong evidence that Philippine military officials responsible for human rights abuses will never face justice.” Despite the fact that the Philippine government did not meet any of the human rights conditions for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) in 2008, the Department of State provided the Philippines with the full FMF allocation.

We again ask that in order to receive FMF funding, the Philippine government must successfully implement the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur; those in the military and others responsible for the human rights violations must be prosecuted; and the vilification of legal civil society organizations by the military must end.

Additionally, we recommend that the United States Government undertake a thorough investigation as to where and how U.S. military aid to the Philippines has been spent, with particular emphasis on whether these funds are being used in ways that violate the people’s right to life, liberty, and security. We believe the rights and freedom of the Filipino people, including James Balao, cannot be fully realized until these steps are taken.” – marchfianza777@yahoo.com


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