By Aries Rufo
It took an anonymous call and an indefatigable official to save the country’s heritage from being plundered.
After 13 years, the Manila Regional Trial Court is set to promulgate its decision Thursday on the theft case at the National Library, where priceless historical documents were systematically pilfered and sold to antique shops and collectors in the early 90s.
Branch 32 presiding judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina will render her decision on May 29, closing the first reported case of pilferage at the National Library and which dragged prominent and respected names from the academe.
It also puts a closure to the no-nonsense campaign of former National Library director Adoracion Bolos to retrieve thousands of stolen documents representing historical legacy.
A former researcher of the National Historical Institute, Rolando Bayhon, has earlier been convicted for the National Library theft by Manila judge David Nitafan from seven to 12 years in prison. Bayhon, however, was sentenced in absentia and remains at-large.
This week, it is the turn of Maria Luisa Moral, former chief of the Library’s Filipiniana and Asia Division (FAD), and alleged accomplice of Bayhon, to face the music.
How it began
We pieced the story from various court documents, internal memos, as well as justice department papers.
The case basically began as a power struggle between Moral and Bolos shortly after the latter assumed as acting director in 1992.
Bolos, a former chief of the Filipiniana and Asia division herself in the 70s, sought an inventory of rare books and manuscripts shortly after she assumed as acting director of the Library. Bolos created an external committee to conduct an independent inventory at the FAD.
However, in an exchange of memos between Moral and Bolos, Moral, then the chief of the division, objected to the move, saying it was just a "waste of management" and "not in the interest of the service." She also questioned the external committee’s creation, saying it was merely meant "to harass the FAD, which did not support you in your quest for the directorship."
Unable to enlist Moral’s support, Bolos revamped the chiefs of division, transferring Moral to the Catalog division.
Sometime in Sept. 1993, while the inventory of rare books and manuscripts were ongoing at the FAD, Bolos received an anonymous call that historical documents were being spirited away from the National Library. At that time, demand was high for rare collections from the Philippine Revolution with the coming centennial anniversary of Philippine independence in 1998.
Acting on the tip, Bolos had the movement of Bayhon, who frequented the FAD for supposed research, closely monitored. She sought the help of the National Bureau of Investigation to entrap him.
A sting operation led to the arrest of Bayhon two months later as he was about to sell 42 historical documents at P1,000 each to an antique store in Mabini Street, Manila. He had just left the National Library carrying several brown envelopes. About 700 documents with stamped markings of the National Library were also recovered from the antique store.
Following Bayhon’s arrest, Bolos appealed to the public to turn over stolen documents that they might have unwittingly bought. She vowed not to press charges if the documents would be returned voluntarily. Around 8,183 documents, mostly classified as Philippine Revolutionary Papers, were returned to the National Library. One University of the Philippines professor returned more than 6,000 documents.
Among the retrieved documents were the manuscript of Andres Bonifacio’s trial, the Declaration of Independence, the Pact of Biac-na-Bato and Leonor Rivera’s letter to Rizal’s parents dated Dec. 10,1893.
Further probe showed a network of "mediators" and interested buyers of antique documents, with Baylon as the common denominator. The documents were being sold for P30,000 to P50,000.
Meantime, the inventory team found out that more than a hundred Rizaliana papers were missing from the two vaults of the FAD, based on a 1972 inventory.
Among the original pieces that remain missing to this day are Rizal’s letters to his family in 1883, and Ferdinand Blumentritts’ letters to Don Higino Francisco from 1906 to 1912. These documents were listed in the book authored by historian Ambeth Ocampo profiling the Rizaliana items kept in the vaults of the National Library when he was tapped as consultant from 1987 to 1989.
In May 1994, two years after the inventory team began its work, Moral turned over to the NBI hundreds of documents that were declared missing by the inventory team. She said she mistakenly brought the documents to her catalog division office during the revamp in 1992. She said she found the mistake a year later but decided to keep them because of her conflict with Bolos. She told NBI probers that Bolos "might not look upon with fairness if she will immediately return the materials or admit the circumstances of the oversight."
But in a resolution dated May 29, 1995, then Assistant Chief Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño rejected Moral’s defense that it was an honest mistake. Zuño said Moral’s act of omission qualified as theft, as there was"intent to gain inferred from the deliberate failure to deliver the lost property..."
The fact that she was no longer the custodian of the documents and that it took her almost two years to return the "missing" documents to the National Library, "makes us disagree that they were misplaced or simply overlooked as this runs counter to logic and human experience," the resolution said. The resolution found there was probable cause to indict Moral for theft.
Moral was dismissed in 1995 when the case was filed.
Exactly13 years since the resolution was endorsed, Moral is facing her date with history.