Under any other circumstance, with a different set of actors, the scene would have been heartwarming. It was a dance shared by a bride and her father, truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Indeed, “what a sight to behold,” as a congresswoman who videoed the pair commented.
But there were many things wrong with the picture. First, the father of the bride was former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan. Together with his father who died while under detention, the younger Ampatuan is the suspected mastermind of what has become known as the “Maguindanao Massacre.” To attend his daughter Kristina’s wedding, Ampatuan had sought a furlough from his detention at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City, and was allowed by the court to attend the glitzy rites at the luxurious Sofitel hotel.
Second, the wedding invitation listed as sponsors not just friends and relatives of the Ampatuans, but even members of the Duterte Cabinet, including a senator. Among the principal sponsors were former vice president Jejomar Binay, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Sen. Win Gatchalian, peace adviser Jesus Dureza, and, most tellingly, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.
More shocking was the presence at the festivities of members of the Mangudadatu clan. It is the prosecution’s contention that the motive for the killings in 2009 was to prevent the filing of the candidacy of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, who was contesting the Ampatuans’ hold on power in their province of Maguindanao. Believing that Muslim tradition would prevent his rivals from attacking women, and that the presence of media would deter violence, Mangudadatu asked his wife Genalyn to lead a group of supporters, most of them women relatives, in a convoy to file his certificate of candidacy in another town.
Instead, the convoy was met by about a hundred armed men in the town of Ampatuan who fired on the vehicles. In all, 57 people (58 in other counts) were killed, including Genalyn, Mangudadatu’s sisters, several lawyers, and 32 journalists. Media watchdog Reporters without Borders has called it “the biggest bloodbath of journalists in media’s history.” A witness would later testify that the killers pinpointed Genalyn for singular punishment: She sustained 17 gunshot wounds, her death described as “cruel, brutal, and most painful.”
Compounding the killings was the attempt to cover up the massacre, with the use of a backhoe to bury the human remains and the vehicles.
It has been nine years since this terrible event, with 116 of the 197 original suspects accused of multiple murder arrested. Of these, 107 remain on trial while five were dismissed. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who clarified that prosecutors “vigorously” opposed the grant of furlough to Ampatuan, has stated that the case is nearing completion and a verdict is expected soon.
But, given the equanimity with which Ampatuan left his detention cell, and the support he and his family obviously enjoy from influential people in the administration and in Mindanao society, people can be forgiven if they continue to harbor grave doubts about the state’s resolve to mete out the proper punishment to those behind the Maguindanao Massacre, as well as to render justice to the victims and their families.
Explaining her grant of furlough, Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes said a wedding was a “momentous family occasion which must be attended by the couple’s loved ones.” But so is the graduation from college of a son, for which detained Sen. Leila de Lima had likewise sought leave to attend. But in contrast to the acquiescence to give leave for Ampatuan to be present at his daughter’s wedding, De Lima’s plea was denied outright, even if the charges lodged against her were far less serious, and even if she has yet to face trial.
What’s wrong with this picture? Why should an accused mass murderer receive preferred treatment over an elected senator who was implicated only by the testimony of convicted drug lords? The answer, it seems, is blowing in our political winds.