One thousand days later, the Maguindanao massacre remains unresolved, justice continues to elude the victims, their families and friends are assailed by death threats that add insult to their injuries, physical and emotional, and witnesses have been killed or have suddenly refused to testify for fear of reprisal.
The multiple murder trial of at least 195 people was predicted by Sen. Joker Arroyo to be “the trial of the century.” And he was not exaggerating: If everything proceeds according to the peculiar torpor and rhythm of the Philippine justice system, the families of those who were killed in arguably the worst political bloodletting in our recent past (at least 57 people, mostly journalists; the body of the reported 58th victim, photojournalist Reynaldo Momay, has yet to be found) may get satisfaction after a century. The trial augurs for our nation a continuing history of impunity.
Witnesses to the 2009 massacre were placed under state protection following the killing of other witnesses. The security of four others already in the protection program has been beefed up, according to the justice department. Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, whose wife was among those slain, said at least six witnesses or their relatives have been gunned down since the trial began in September 2010.
One witness, militiaman Esmail Amil Enog, is believed to have been killed in March, his body cut into pieces; authorities learned of his death only recently. Enog testified in court last year that he drove dozens of gunmen to the hilly site of the massacre from the residence of one of the suspects.
Meanwhile, the victims’ kin have received death threats. Myrna Reblando, the widow of slain Manila Bulletin reporter Alejandro Reblando, has fled to Hong Kong, saying the Philippine government failed to provide her protection. She said that while the death threats would not silence her, and that she would continue to fight for justice, she had taken flight to protect her family. “I am ready to die,” she told the Foreign Correspondents Club. “However, I cannot put the life of my children at risk. I am their mother. They have only me now.”
It doesn’t help the victims’ families that the Philippine National Police has admitted having a tough time finding the suspects who remain at large. PNP spokesperson Senior Supt. Generoso Cerbo Jr. said that the difficulty lay in conducting the manhunt in the vastness of Maguindanao, and that the fugitives were being protected by their clans and communities. Of the at least 195 accused, only 96 have been apprehended.
Much of the pressure for the system to deliver speedy justice is on Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221, who took on the case that other judges had passed over for fear of their lives. It’s no mean feat to be conducting a trial of such magnitude. Solis-Reyes had said that while the records are for 57 counts of murder, the pleadings may equal those for 500 cases. Her latest ruling is decisive and courageous. Abdulwahid Pedtucasan, formerly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s 15th Regional Mobile Group and the 76th accused in the massacre to be arraigned, had sought to delay his indictment by saying he should be treated with the presumption of regularity. The former police official had admitted to deploying additional men to the detachment that intercepted the convoy of the victims. The judge denied his motion, saying the deployment of more policemen and the ensuing checkpoint operation had facilitated the interception of the convoy and the subsequent massacre. She ruled that there was probable cause to indict Pedtucasan.
Solis-Reyes said she hoped to deliver a verdict by 2016 and appealed for understanding amid public criticism of the trial’s slow pace. She explained that while Branch 221 had been designated a special court to focus solely on the Maguindanao case, the members of her staff are general court employees who have to work on other cases, too. She has invited the people to attend the hearings to see for themselves.
Despite the hazards that go with this controversial case, Solis-Reyes has taken it so as to disabuse the public mind of the idea “that the judiciary is afraid.” She said the people’s faith in the justice system must be restored. With judicial boldness and courage, perhaps she will be able to do just that.
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