10:55 PM June 26th, 2013

June 26th, 2013 10:55 PM

The news that relatives of 14 victims of the gruesome Maguindanao massacre are ready to settle with the family of the principal accused is sobering. It alerts us to the financial and even security risks that many of the victims’ families face from day to day. And it reminds us, yet again, that the wheels of justice in the Philippines do grind exceedingly slow.

What it does not do is seal the argument, as activist lawyer Harry Roque seems to suggest, that the Philippine government is legally required to offer compensation to the victims’ families. It also does not stop the multiple-murder trial in its tracks; only the civil liability of the accused in a criminal case can be waived in a settlement. To quote an emphatic Justice Secretary Leila de Lima: “Any waiver of criminal liability is against public policy, hence, null and void.”

In other words, the trial of the Ampatuans and their coaccused, for the worst single crime in the Philippines since at least World War II, will continue.

All the same, any settlement will have serious consequences. While government lawyers have reacted to the news of a possible out-of-court deal by noting that an offer to settle from the accused could be read as an implied admission of guilt, no one can rule out the possibility that the “credibility” of the families and their witnesses (to use the term of one victim’s relative who said she would never agree to any form of settlement) may take a hit. That one settlement may lead to others, or result in further delays to an already lengthy trial, is also a real possibility.

We must note that, according to the disclosures made by Roque, the private lawyer representing 17 families of media-worker victims, a total of 14 families (including four of his clients) were ready to negotiate a settlement, for the reported sum of P50 million. It did not come to pass, apparently for various (even conflicting) reasons. But just the idea that secret talks had taken place was enough to rattle the overlapping groups of victims’ kin, lawyers, supporters and observers closely monitoring the trial.
Many of us can understand the pressures that the victims’ families are subjected to. Still unable to recover fully from their immense grief, caught in the whirlpool of legal and political concerns, trapped by worries about physical safety (some of the accused remain very powerful personalities in Maguindanao) and economic security (many of the victims were their family’s breadwinners)—they are in an untenable situation.

In this context, the prospect of a settlement appears like a clean break, a chance to stop the world from turning and start again.

The idea, proposed by Roque, that the government should provide the victims’ families with a special compensation, is actually not without appeal: They have been through a hellish three years and a half, with the end of the trial still not yet in sight; it would be a mark of simple decency on the part of the national government (though we believe not a legal obligation) to help provide substantially for them.

At the same time, many of us can also understand the depth of De Lima’s anguish, when she texted reporters that “it would be both legally and morally wrong for [the 14 victims’ families] to settle with those responsible for the most heinous crime in Philippine history.”

The butchering of the victims was so casually brutal, the attempt to bury the dead—many of them still in their vehicles—so blithely careless, the sheer number of victims claimed in a single spasm of violence so shockingly high, that the country passed a turning point. It is not hyperbole to state that on Nov. 23, 2009, extreme violence was done to all of us. In other words, there are other victims, too.

De Lima again: “May I stress further that the Maguindanao massacre case is more than the private interests of the victims and their families, but one which is imbued with deep public interest. It cannot and should not be bargained away for any amount of money.”

Now that the prosecution phase of the trial is nearing its end, fears are rising that defense lawyers will use all possible delaying tactics. The Department of Justice must ensure that the government’s lawyers will not countenance any delay. At the same time, the public must rediscover its sense of both urgency and outrage, and put pressure on the court.

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