When the sideshow to the criminal trial becomes more eventful than the trial itself, you know that the proceedings are in deep trouble. What disarray has engulfed the Maguindanao massacre trial, in which an unprecedented 194 individuals led by members of the powerful Ampatuan clan are in the dock for the murder of 58 people, 34 of them media workers, in November 2009.
The charges and countercharges are sensational, ranging from bribery to intimidation to gaming the system. The latest news is that the lawyers of the Ampatuans have resigned their posts, curiously just before their turn to present evidence to the court in defense of their clients. Harry Roque, one of the private prosecutors assisting the families of some of those murdered, has characterized this move as a cynical delaying tactic on the part of the defense—a charge that seems borne out by a strange fact: According to reports, Sigfrid Fortun’s motion to withdraw as lawyer for Andal Ampatuan Sr. and Jr., while dated June 30, 2014, was submitted to the court only on Aug. 7. His cocounsels’ resignations, meanwhile, are dated Aug. 1 and 5.
What this development suggests is the notion of premeditation—a seemingly well-planned move to further slow down the trial by forcing the court to halt the proceedings while their erstwhile clients look for new lawyers.
That maneuver may not be the worst of it. Roque and a number of prosecutors, public and private, have themselves been accused of receiving hefty bribes from the Ampatuans. What’s even more bizarre is that the accuser, Nena Santos, is a colleague of theirs in the prosecution panel, who says the move of Roque et al. to rest the case now and let the defense offer its evidence for a number of the accused is the result of millions of pesos transferring hands. The most prominent of the bribe-takers, says Santos, is Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III, who has vehemently denied the charge.
The evidence for the payoffs, for now, is a notebook that supposedly details the identities of the recipients and the amounts of money they were given—everyone from Roque and Baraan to the fiscal who initially handled the case, to certain family members of the deceased. No other corroborating evidence has yet surfaced to lend weight to the list, but Santos says she has witnesses—the courier who brought the money to Baraan, for instance—and will present them in due time. She also says that she informed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima about the bribery, and that De Lima then told her not to file charges against the prosecutors with the Ombudsman.
In a TV interview, De Lima was heard downplaying the list, calling it incomplete and suspect at the very least—though she did announce that she has told the National Bureau of Investigation to commence an inquiry into Santos’ charges. De Lima’s demeanor raises questions: Why take a stand so early by dismissing what may turn out to be material evidence? She could have risen above the fray by, first, telling her subordinates to shape up and work with one another, and second, by assuring the public that all charges and pieces of evidence would be looked into and proper sanctions meted out wherever needed.
Surely De Lima knows the grave import that a collapse of the Ampatuan trial over charges of corruption would entail. Such a distressing setback would boomerang on the Aquino administration, which has vowed to obtain justice on its watch for what the international watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists has called “the single deadliest event for journalists in history.” Being cavalier about so explosive a charge against some of the people working under her does not inspire confidence that all the facts in this convoluted digression, which has overshadowed the trial itself, would come to light soon.
What to do? Unless a firm hand intervenes to whip the prosecutors into line to get their act together, the government might as well throw in the towel and let the accused win the case by default. If there will be justice for those brutally murdered in broad daylight in the badlands of Maguindanao almost five years ago, the prosecution cannot afford to degenerate into a squabbling horde.
An independent and swift inquiry is of utmost urgency, to right the case before it’s too late.
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