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Maguindanao massacre: Acid test for justice system

During his last State of the Nation Address, President Aquino intoned, “Every government official takes an oath to do right by our countrymen and to uphold the law. But it was clear: Our predecessor did precisely the opposite. We were all witnesses to the most appalling example, when 58 Filipinos were massacred in November 2009. To think about committing such a crime was already heinous. To do it, which they did, was even worse. The worst offense of all: their belief that they could get away with it, because they were in power—which is why they carried out their plans in the first place.”

New wounds. The foregoing official English translation did not catch the exact lingual nuance of the President’s original message in Filipino decrying the selective justice and impunity allegedly perpetrated by his predecessor in office.

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But it was enough to open new wounds in the long-winded trial of the gory shooting, mangling and “back-hoeing” of 58 defenseless civilians in Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2009. That it happened just six months prior to, and as a senseless incident of, the 2010 presidential election made the multiple murder a centerpiece of the search for justice of the victorious Benigno S. Aquino III.

Many local and foreign benefactors of the victims (like the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility of Melinda de Jesus) view this massacre not only as a deadly example of criminal impunity but also as a shameless assault on press freedom, given that 32 of the victims were media persons.

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And yet, after five years of the emergent regime, the five consolidated murder cases originally filed against 197 accused (15 were surnamed Ampatuan, with Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. as the main accused), remain in the trial stage.

Prime attention. Consequently, the cases were given prime attention by the executive and judicial branches of the government, thus:

1) The venue of the trial was moved from faraway Maguindanao to the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. While this move assured better security for the witnesses and more media focus, it spawned logistical problems like travel and lodging expenses.

2) Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, who is known for her competence, integrity and independence, has been relieved of all her other cases and assigned two assisting judges.

3) The Supreme Court directed the judge to implement the Judicial Affidavit Rule, whereby witnesses were no longer examined in open court via lengthy questions and answers on direct examination (but cross-examination was retained); authorized her to issue partial judgments; and allowed her to continue the trial despite the pendency of appeals challenging her interlocutory orders.

Current status. While these measures considerably speeded up the proceedings, still the cases are far from resolved. To date, of the 197 accused, one had been dropped, another discharged to be used as a state’s witness, still another dismissed or virtually acquitted, and four (including clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr.) died.

The proceedings are attended by 12 public prosecutors, seven private prosecutors and 26 defense law firms. The transcripts of stenographic notes have thickened to 48 volumes and the records (motions, petitions, orders of the judges, etc.) have grown to 101 humongous volumes.

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The court has heard 174 witnesses (93 from the prosecution, 23 from the defense and 58 private complainants) during continuous trials mostly held at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City. Judge Solis-Reyes and her two assisting judges have disposed of 472 trial “incidents” with only 22 remaining. They have resolved 59 petitions for bail. The bail petition of Unsay Ampatuan is the only major one left.

Having resolved most of the bail petitions, the court is now hearing simultaneously the prosecution’s evidence-in-chief. In fact, the prosecution has rested its case against nine accused (Bong Andal, Saudi Mukamad, Talembo Masukat, Dexton Sapula, Abas Anongan, Kumini Inggo, Warden Legawan, Takpan Dilon and Mohammad Sangki) and expects to rest fully before the year ends.

But the many defense counsels will still present their respective sides thereafter. So, despite the frantic effort to expedite the proceedings, I doubt that any decision would be rendered before the end of P-Noy’s term on June 30, 2016.

Acid test. During my short stint as chief justice, I focused my judicial reform program on what I called the “Acid” problems that corrode justice: 1) Access to justice by the poor, 2) Corruption, 3) Incompetence of some judges, and 4) Delay in the delivery of quality justice.

From the start of his term up to his last Sona, P-Noy has repeatedly alluded to the Maguindanao massacre as the grand example of the impunity allegedly perpetrated by his predecessor—impunity that he vowed to vindicate and eradicate. Ineluctably, he has made the search for justice in the Maguindanao massacre the acid test of our criminal justice system.

This system was instituted under our 1987 Constitution to shield the innocent and the underprivileged from the strong arm of the state that the Marcos dictatorship wrongly employed to violate civil liberties and to perpetuate itself. Ironically, however, these very rights are at times misused and abused to delay and frustrate the dispensation of justice.

How to prevent this misuse and abuse is the other litmus challenge of our justice system. In my humble view, this should be the long-term focus of judicial and prosecutorial reforms.

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TAGS: Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, maguindanao massacre, P-Noy, State of the Nation Address
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