1,000 days after, long battle for justice for victims of Ampatuan massacre looms

“If the Massacre has made anything clear, it is the difficulty of obtaining justice through a judicial system hostage to technicalities and susceptible to the crafty manipulation of lawyers” – Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility


MANILA – Grace Morales clings to the hope of finding justice for her husband Rosell and for her sister Marites.

It has been more than 1,000 days since her two loved ones, along with 56 others, were brutally killed allegedly by paramilitary forces controlled by the Ampatuan clan. Rosell, a reporter for News Focus and Marites Cablitas, a reporter of DxBX radio were among the 32 journalists slain in the November 23, 2009 massacre that took place in sitio Masalay, barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

Grace is among the relatives who filed charges against members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, including Andal Ampatuan Sr., Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. and former Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

In a phone interview with Bulatlat.com, Grace said that while she knows that hearings are being held almost every day, “the judicial process is painstakingly slow.”

Of the 196 suspects to the massacre, 95 are detained and 76 have been arraigned.

Prima Jesusa Quinsayas, lawyer of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFF) and one of the private prosecutors to the case, said there are seven to eight more persons identified by eyewitnesses in open court who have not been formally charged. Quinsayas said 56 of the suspects have filed petitions for bail. On top of the bail proceedings are two to three motions, on the average, filed by the defense every week, Quinsayas said.

Quinsayas said although the defense lawyers are just doing their job, she said there should be a limit to certain things. She cited as example the innumerable motions to inhibit filed by the defense against presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) shared the same observation. In a statement, the media watchdog said that from the very beginning of the trial, there were already disturbing indications, citing the petitions, motions and other “seemingly dilatory tactics” employed by the defense.

“If the Massacre has made anything clear, it is the difficulty of obtaining justice through a judicial system hostage to technicalities and susceptible to the crafty manipulation of lawyers,” the CMFR said.

Meanwhile, as the trial drags on, witnesses continue to live in fear, said Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), during the commemoration of the 1,000th day since the massacre at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

“They will have to wait for years before they can testify in court. In the meantime, they have to put up with all forms of harassment and to carry the burden of other problems [that go with testifying],” Mangahas said.

Three witnesses and three of the relatives of witnesses have been killed, according to Quinsayas.

Mangahas also pointed out the weaknesses in the investigation of the case. She said that 48 hours after the incident, members of the FFFJ who went to the place saw empty shells, personal belongings of victims, mutilated body parts, specks of blood still at the crime scene. “Almost none of the physical evidence has been preserved,” Mangahas said in Filipino.

Mangahas added that until now, the body of evidence gathered by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) has yet to be turned over and the firearms confiscated when martial law was declared in Maguindanao province have yet to be accounted for.

Concrete measures

Is the executive doing enough? Quinsayas said, “We have a concept in law that Cabinet secretaries serve as the President’s alter ego. And if we look at [Justice Secretary] De Lima and [Interior and Local Government Secretary] Robredo, Aquino is doing his best.”

Quinsayas said it was De Lima who did a major revamp in the DOJ panel of prosecutors for the Ampatuan case and provided the staff for the panel. De Lima also provided moral support. She attended the hearings twice: first as chair of the Commission on Human Rights and then as justice secretary.

On the part of the late Secretary Robredo, Quinsayas said he was the one who ordered all the chiefs of police to look into the safety of private complainants. He also issued an order for the fair treatment of detainees. “I am getting goose bumps. I met with him just this August,” Quinsayas said. Robredo’s body had just been found on the day of the interview.

“But of course, there will always be room for improvement,” she said. “Aquino should have his ‘get them’ attitude when it comes to the massacre. Unlike in cases involving Arroyo [former president Gloria Arroyo], when it comes to the Ampatuan massacre, Aquino lacks the fire to see the case through.

Quinsayas laid down in concrete terms what the executive and other branches of government can do to help in the resolution of the case.

One is to improve logistical support, including manpower, for the public and private prosecutors.

Quinsayas told Bulatlat.com that the staff of the DOJ panel often runs out of paper and ink and the photocopier has not been working for two months. They have to photocopy all the documents in commercial establishments. She said it is not just costly but also undermines the confidentiality of the documents.

The FFFJ lawyer also said it took more than a year before the DOJ panel was provided with a new vehicle for transportation. A dilapidated van used to service the prosecutors who carry with them boxes of evidence every trial.

One time, Quinsayas related, two men on board separate motorcycles tried to cut in front of and behind the service vehicle. “If the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] agents did not bring out their M-14 rifles, the motorcycles would have not sped away,” she said. She surmised that it was a possible attempt to get the evidence. She said having two vehicles will not only protect the prosecutors but more importantly, the evidence they hold.

Quinsayas said the executive should also monitor law enforcement agencies such as the PNP and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). The PNP provides security to the witnesses and their families while the BJMP personnel are in charge of the detainees.

“We heard several times that the Ampatuans are getting special treatment in jail. Who should be held liable for this?” Quinsayas said.

The Ampatuans are detained at the Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.

Grace said she believes the rumors to be true. “With the wealth they have, the Ampatuans can make money work for them,” she told Bulatlat.com.

Grace related that sometime last year, she and the other relatives of victims attempted to see for themselves the situation of the suspects in jail. They were denied; the jail officers were asking them to produce certain requirements before they would be allowed to visit.

As for the judiciary, both Mangahas and Quinsayas said the perpetuation of testimonies of witnesses should be allowed. The law allows perpetuation of testimonies only in civil cases.

Under the rules, for testimonies to be admitted in court, the witness should be in court to testify and should be cross-examined by the other party.

The legislative, Quinsayas said, should strengthen the Witness Protection Program (WPP) by providing additional budget, among others.

Mangahas said the executive should take decisive action for the case to progress. “Under Aquino, 13 journalists have been killed,” she said.

Many others are facing libel suits and death threats, Mangahas said.

In the meantime, Grace and the other families are hanging on. “We are just ordinary citizens who rely on government to act,” she said.

“We hope they will improve the handling of the case because this is not just an ordinary case,” Grace said. “The whole world is watching.”

Grace said the support of media organizations and other groups and individuals boost their morale. “It matters so much to us, the families,” she said. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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