“Our justices may look into the possibility of reviewing and revising the rules of court.” – Prima Quinsayas, lawyer of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – With the painstakingly slow pace of the Ampatuan massacre trial, media organizations reiterated their recommendations to resolve media killings.
Months after the Nov. 23, 2009 brutal killing of 58 individuals, of whom 32 were journalists, in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, media watchdogs held a dialogue with government agencies, including Malacañang, and put forward several recommendations. Among these include the creation of a multisectoral quick reaction team for cases of media killings, strengthening the Witness Protection program (WPP) and a review of the Rules of Court.
Except for allocating a higher budget for the WPP, the other recommendations had not been taken up, according to Luis Teodoro, deputy executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and chairman of AlterMidya, a national network of alternative media practitioners.
In an interview with Bulatlat.com, Prima Quinsayas, lawyer of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ), lamented how the rules of court has become a reason for the delay in the trial of the Ampatuan massacre case.
Quinsayas said members of the Ampatuan clan, primary suspects in the massacre, used all the legal remedies available at their disposal. She cited Zaldy Ampatuan as an example. Zaldy was charged in court in February 2010. He filed a petition for review before the Department of Justice. Then Secretary Alberto Agra dismissed the charges against him. The families then filed a motion for reconsideration, which was granted by Agra. Zaldy elevated the case to the Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court. It was only in December 2012 that the arraignment of Zaldy took place.
According to the FFFJ, the trial is still locked up in bail proceedings. Of the 70 of the accused who filed petition for bail, the court has so far decided on the 43 petitions. Just last week, Zaldy presented evidence for his petition for bail.
“Our justices may look into the possibility of reviewing and revising the rules of court,” Quinsayas said.
Killing of witnesses
Quinsayas said the rules of court does not allow perpetuation of testimonies. With the death of four witnesses in the Ampatuan massacre case was the death of their testimonies.
She attributed the killing of witnesses to a weak WPP.
The lawyer calls on the legislative branch of government to strengthen the witness protection law, which she describes as “toothless.”
Maximize SC guidelines
Both Quinsayas and Teodoro said the guidelines released by the Supreme Court in December 2013 to expedite the case should be upheld.
The guidelines allow Presiding Judge Jocelyn Reyes to resolve pending motions before her court despite appeals in higher courts, and for an Assisting Judge “to handle the conduct of all non-trial incidents in the (Ampatuan) massacre cases, such as arraignments and pre-trials, as well as to decide on incidents and motions that are not intrinsic to the merits of the cases.” The SC has also allowed for Judicial Affidavits to be submitted instead of witnesses’ directly testifying in court.
As of now, Quinsayas said the DOJ has not looked into how to maximize the said guidelines. “If only these are followed, we might see convictions before the end of Aquino’s term,” Quinsayas said.
Teodoro said President Benigno Aquino III should exert his influence on the DOJ to speed up the Ampatuan massacre case.
Teodoro, however, noted that Aquino has repeatedly dismissed media killings as the consequence of personal disputes. Such statement, Teodoro said, sends the message that the Aquino administration is not interested in resolving media killings.
He said that the call for justice for the victims of the Ampatuan massacre is part of the campaign against impunity.