Nov. 23, 2009, now lives in infamy as the day of the single deadliest attack on the press, and one of the worst cases of election-related violence in the Philippines.
And yet, nine years later, the families of the 58 individuals, including 32 journalists, who were abducted and mowed down at close range on a remote hilltop in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao, and then hastily buried in shallow graves, have yet to celebrate a single conviction in the case.
But there may be reason for some hope now. The families of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre said in a recent statement that they had received news that the court trying the multiple murder case is about to deliver a verdict against Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., who was slapped with 58 counts of murder and tagged as the mastermind of the horrific incident.
The long-awaited judgment by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court under Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes is expected in the first quarter of 2019.
“We meet this news with renewed vigor and relief, for we have waited too long and have given so much to the case over the years,” said the families represented by the Center for International Law. “We have full confidence that the evidence presented is enough to prove Datu Unsay’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and we await the verdict with cautious hope.”
The road to this cautiously hopeful pass has been long and torturous. Of the initial 197 suspects charged for the massacre, 117 were arrested — including Ampatuan’s brothers, former governor Zaldy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Anwar Ampatuan Sr. — and 70 members of the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines; 80 are still at large.
Five have died in detention, including Ampatuan clan patriarch and former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. who passed away in July 2015.
At one point, Ampatuan Jr.’s lawyer was Salvador Panelo, now the presidential spokesperson, who framed Ampatuan’s defense this way: “Why would the Ampatuans waylay and massacre the wife of a political rival and followers plus media practitioners in the enemy’s lair? That’s against common sense and logic… I’m more convinced that the Ampatuans have been framed to seize political power.”
Esmael Mangudadatu, the Ampatuans’ chief political rival at the time and now Maguindanao governor — whose wife and sisters were in the convoy of election supporters massacred on that gruesome November day nine years ago — revealed recently that he had been offered P100 million to walk away from the case.
He turned down the offer, but the person sent to broker the payoff died later in a motorcycle accident, he said.
Nena Santos, private lawyer for the families of 35 of the victims, including the family of Mangudadatu, said five key witnesses had also been offered bribes, including M16 rifles for self-defense, monthly allowances and houses in Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao, all in exchange for recanting.
One of the five witnesses accepted the offer and officially recanted his testimony implicating Ampatuan Jr.
These attempts to scuttle the case and pervert justice go back to the earliest days. Almost immediately after trial began, some of the families were allegedly offered at least P25 million each to withdraw complaints.
Over the course of the trial, three witnesses have ended up killed, and two potential witnesses who survived attacks eventually refused to testify.
The magnitude of the crime and the arduous wait for its resolution have cast a long cloud on the Philippines’ international standing.
The country dropped six places, from 127th in 2017 to 133rd in 2018, in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, which noted that the Philippines remains one of the deadliest countries for journalists in Asia-Pacific in part because of the unresolved Maguindanao massacre.
“The continuing injustice,” said the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, “is a stark reminder of the impunity that the government has failed to end in the country.”
Judge Solis-Reyes can deliver a cathartic, landmark blow for justice with a verdict that punishes the guilty, closes the book on this harrowing chapter in the nation’s history, and, in the words of the victims’ kin, “bring[s] a sense of humanity into this dark and regrettable incident.”
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