Far from over
Early in September this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) officially classified the Ampatuan massacre as “resolved,” after a Quezon City regional trial court found 28 accused guilty of murder in what has been described as “the worst attack on journalists and the worst election-related violent incident in Philippine history.” The attack led to the gruesome killing of 58 persons, including 32 journalists, whose mass graves were later found on a hilly portion of Ampatuan town in Maguindanao.
Learning of the Unesco decision, relatives of the slain journalists, media groups, and civil society organizations sent a letter to the UN agency expressing concern and noting that the case was far from over, as those convicted—including members of the powerful Ampatuan family—have filed their appeals, while scores of other suspects have remained at large.
Unesco heeded their appeal and on Sept. 24 reversed its decision, saying that the legal cases will be maintained as “ongoing/unresolved… until such a moment when a final verdict is reached by the Philippine judicial system.”
For presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, a former counsel of some of the relatives of the slain journalists, that moment came in December 2019, when the Quezon City RTC Branch 221 convicted 28 principals, including three Ampatuan brothers, of 57 counts of murder, but acquitted 56 more for insufficient evidence.
“Nakamit na po ang hustisya sa ilalim ng administrasyong Duterte. At least po, nakakulong na ngayon ‘yung magkapatid na Ampatuan,” Roque said Monday, the 11th anniversary of the gruesome killings. The December ruling sentenced most of the accused, including Andal Ampatuan Jr., Anwar Ampatuan Sr. and Zaldy Ampatuan, to reclusion perpetua, theoretically 40 years behind bars. But human rights lawyer Ted Te said they’d likely serve only 30 years because of the 10 years they’d spent in detention while on trial. And the 30-year sentence may still end up reduced due to the Good Conduct Time Allowance law.
Roque also failed to mention an unsettling fact: that the acquitted suspects—and those who have remained at large—far outnumber those who were convicted. For the aggrieved relatives, the court decision brought at best partial justice, and more questions about the integrity of the country’s judicial system.
“Another case of impunity,” lawyer Nena Santos, counsel of some of the relatives, said of the justice department resolution released in late October that indicted eight more suspects—but absolved 40 others in the second batch of complaints.
The Department of Justice resolution said there was no probable cause to charge the 40 other respondents who were either present at the meetings when the massacre was being planned or at the crime scene, since they did not take part in the actual killings.
Santos questioned the criminal accountability of those who allegedly stood guard, lent moral support, or did nothing to prevent the massacre. She singled out former Ampatuan lawyer and now Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani Sayadi. “[H]er legal knowledge, and the fact that a lawyer, the very best person who can and would legally protect her co-conspirators from criminal liability, is present at the meetings, undoubtedly and indubitably, emboldened, reassured and encouraged her co-conspirators into proceeding in the commission of the multiple murders,” said Santos.
Then there’s the matter of the 76 other accused still at large, more than a decade after the crime.
And what about the 58th victim, photographer Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, whose name was excised from the list because his body was never found, only his dentures? Without Momay being recognized officially as among the slain, his family will not be entitled to damages given each family in the suit. As Momay’s daughter Reynafe Momay Castillo lamented in Monday’s online forum on media killings, “My father is a mediaman, a photojournalist… The only reason why he lost his life was because of his profession. The profession that he did not only love but the profession that guards and defends every citizen’s constitutional right to press freedom.”
The appeals process remains precarious ground as well, what with Solicitor General Jose Calida representing the government in the case. Santos confessed to being “nervous” at the prospect. Indeed, Calida’s record does not inspire much confidence; in 2017, for instance, he pushed for the acquittal of businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, who was convicted of serious illegal detention and is also on trial for plunder in connection with the pork-barrel scam.
The court’s action on the Ampatuans’ appeal bears watching, Santos said. And well it should. As this case illustrates, 11 years, and counting, of arduous proceedings have yet to ensure that justice has been well and truly served.
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