8 years and counting
Fifty-eight lives. Eight years. Zero conviction. Those numbers sum up the grim state of affairs concerning the Maguindanao Massacre, which, two years’ shy of a decade, remains “the single deadliest event for journalists in history,” as the international watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists has called it.
Thirty-two of the 58 victims were media workers who were covering the filing of the certificate of candidacy of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu by his wife and assorted relatives, family friends and aides. Mangudadatu was challenging Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., a scion of a powerful and long-entrenched warlord clan whose members were staunch political allies of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for the Maguindanao gubernatorial post in the 2010 national elections.
On their way to the Commission on Elections office in Shariff Aguak, the Mangudadatus’ six-car convoy was flagged down by around 200 armed men. The gunmen took over the vehicles and drove these to another area where everyone was summarily killed, including Mangudadatu’s wife, as well as his aunt and youngest sister, both pregnant at the time. A number of passersby and motorists who happened to be at the scene of the murders also ended up dead. And five of the female victims bore signs of having been raped.
What linked Ampatuan definitively to the crime was a text message Mangudadatu’s wife was able to send her husband before she was killed. She said their abductors were Ampatuan’s men, and that the mayor himself had slapped her.
Then it was silence; the 58-strong contingent appeared to have vanished en masse.
The horrific truth would be revealed when the victims’ bodies, along with the vehicles they had used and the belongings they had with them, were excavated from three enormous pits that had been dug up near the vicinity of the crime scene to serve as a mass dumping ground. That the massacre was a coldly premeditated act, well-planned and executed, was confirmed by subsequent testimony that the pits had been prepared two days before the murders. The backhoe identified as having been used for this purpose carried a telling label: “Property of the province of Maguindanao—Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.”
Arroyo responded to news of the massacre, and the reported involvement of the Ampatuans, who were her staunch political allies, by first declaring a state of emergency in Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City, and then imposing martial law on the province of Maguindanao. The Ampatuans were disarmed, and hundreds of suspects were arrested, including the clan patriarch and alleged mastermind, former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., as well as scores of policemen who allegedly took part in the killings.
Unfortunately, Ampatuan Sr. died in July 2015 of kidney failure, beating any sense of just retribution for the massacre that shook the world and is now forever attached to his family name. His youngest son, Sajid Islam Uy Ampatuan, was granted bail in 2015; some 70 other accused out of 115 suspects taken into custody have likewise been freed on bail. Meanwhile, according to a report in this paper, “since trial began in 2010, at least three witnesses have been killed and two potential witnesses have survived attacks and have refused to testify.”
Eight years later, the case has taken on strange twists and turns. The Ampatuans’ defense lawyer, Salvador Panelo, is now President Duterte’s chief legal counsel. Harry Roque, once the lawyer for a number of victims’ families, has become the President’s spokesperson. The case plods on, largely forgotten by the public; not one suspect has been convicted, and at the rate those accused are being let out on bail, relatives of the victims fear that more witnesses will be intimidated to come out and testify.
How much longer before the country sees any semblance of justice for this most diabolical crime?
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