A continuing tragedy
The Maguindanao massacre, which marked its sixth anniversary Monday, has been called the worst election-related violence in Philippine history. But that description hardly captures the horrific enormity of the crime that happened on a stretch of road in Maguindanao province in 2009: 58 people killed in one fell swoop and then peremptorily buried in a mass grave with the use of a backhoe—but not before some of them were beheaded or mutilated, and others allegedly raped.
The convoy was composed of the wife of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, 14 of his relatives and supporters, 32 media workers, two lawyers, the father of one of the lawyers, and two drivers. They were on their way to Shariff Aguak to file the certificate of candidacy of Mangudadatu when they were attacked by men reportedly from the Ampatuan clan, whose patriarch, then Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., held the post Mangudadatu wanted to contest in the election. Ampatuan Sr. wanted his son and namesake, then mayor of Unsay town, to succeed him to the post.
To stop the Mangudadatus, a crime of barbaric proportions that would shock the world was carried out. Six motorists who witnessed the carnage or were mistaken as part of the group were also killed. Ampatuan Jr. himself was said to have led the private army of more than a hundred people, among whom were police and paramilitary troopers, that carried out the massacre.
The staggering number of casualties is but the tip of this complex case. A total of 197 people have been tagged for prosecution, and the list is still growing; the Department of Justice initiated a preliminary investigation into 50 new suspects in March this year, among them 14 other members of the Ampatuan clan, and some town mayors.
Quezon City RTC Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes has been instructed by the Supreme Court to focus solely on the trial of the accused, and three judges are assigned to help her in the case. So far, only the prosecution has been able to present its case, and in staggered format given the sheer number of suspects. In August, it rested its case against a first batch of 45 suspects, including the father-and-son Ampatuan and their in-law Akmad
Ampatuan; and two weeks ago, against 41 police officers charged with 58 counts of murder under the case.
The violence, however, did not stop with the arrest of suspects. A former driver and a former bagman of the Ampatuans, considered vital witnesses in the case, figured in an ambush that left the driver dead and the alleged bagman injured. Private and state prosecutors also engaged in a public spat that involved accusations of bribery, said to have been offered by the Ampatuans to the tune of P300 million. Another P50 million was reportedly dangled for certain relatives of 14 victims to drop the murder charges and reach an out-of-court settlement with the Ampatuans, but the deal didn’t push through.
The excruciating pace of the trial was highlighted anew with the death of Ampatuan Sr. in July this year due to liver cancer. While in custody up to his death, by his passing he had escaped judgment by the court, which at the time of his death had already arraigned some 90 suspects, granted bail to 57 of them, tagged 110 witnesses and logged 44 volumes of records. The defense has yet to make a single presentation.
Among those that have been granted bail is another Ampatuan son, Sajid Islam Ampatuan who, on the strength of an P11.6-million bail (P200,000 for each of 58 counts of murder), is back in Maguindanao and running for mayor of Shariff Aguak—as if the diabolical incident said to have been hatched in meetings at their family house six years ago, during which the judge herself said Sajid Islam was present, was merely a piece of pesky lint to dust off his unflappable sleeve on his way to restoring the clan’s fearsome power and influence in the region.
On the campaign trail also about six years ago, then candidate Benigno Aquino III promised that the international outrage that was the Maguindanao massacre would be resolved within his term, its perpetrators brought to justice and some measure of restitution exacted from them in the name of the 58 people who needlessly lost their lives on the crude altar of a provincial warlord’s murderous ambitions.
The trial is largely the court’s ball now, of course, but with President Aquino’s term set to end in seven months and the case not even halfway done, its yawning lack of resolution will constitute another one of his failed promises.
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