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Private lawyers protest resting of case in Ampatuan Massacre

Angela Casauay
Private lawyers protest resting of case in Ampatuan Massacre
The rift between some private lawyers and state prosecutors in the most gruesome massacre in the Philippines' recent history escalates

MANILA, Philippines – To rest or not to rest the prosecution’s case in the Ampatuan Massacre? 

At least two lawyers representing private complainants oppose the decision of state prosecutors to rest their case against primary suspect Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr and 27 others in the most gruesome massacre in the Philippines’ recent history.

Spurred by an electoral rivalry, the Ampatuan Massacre on November 23, 2009, claimed the lives of at least 58 victims, including 32 journalists. Their bodies were dug out in a mass grave in Sitio Masalay, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

Lawyers Nena Santos and Prima Quinsayas warned the move would prohibit the prosecution from filing further evidence in the future and could lead to mistrial. 

Santos represents 27 Ampatuan Massacre victims including Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, whose wife Genalyn died in the massacre. Quinsayas is the legal counsel of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, which represents 17 media victims. 

Santos said the prosecution team should wait for the bail hearing to be resolved first before making a manifestation to rest their case, especially against Ampatuan and police chief inspector Sukarno Dicay.

Tingnan mo muna kung gaano kalakas ang kalaban mo bago ilabas lahat. Ito, ilalabas na agad, tapos pahinga, tapos marami pa palang baraha,” Santos said. 

(You should see first how strong your opponents’ case is before releasing all evidence. Here, they want to release everything then rest when there might be more cards.)

Once the prosecution rests its case, it would no longer be allowed to present additional evidence in the trial proper following the bail petitions. 

Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes, who is in charge of trials on the Ampatuan Massacre, had, in fact, rejected the manifestation of the prosecution to rest their case. During a hearing on March 12, she said the petition for bail must first be resolved and ordered the prosecution to only rest their case for those who have waived their chance to present rebuttal evidence.   

The defense panel has yet to present their rebuttal evidence.

Santos warned against underestimating the defense panel.

“They are not lightweight lawyers and it would be foolish to take them for granted,” she said.

Quinsayas said the prosecution must not sacrifice the merits of the case for a speedy trial. 

“We have so much to lose if we don’t wait for rebuttal evidence to convict beyond reasonable doubt,” Quinsayas said. 

Quinsayas said that the panel gave them a deadline to produce all the requirements needed so the panel could rest their case, triggering their decision to speak out and hold a press conference. The deadline was supposed to have been Thursday, July 31.

Not all private prosecutors share the same opinion as Santos and Quinsayas. 

In a blog post published weeks after public prosecutors made the manifestation in March, lawyer Harry Roque said Centerlaw, which represents the families of 15 victims, welcomed government lawyers’ move to rest their case. 

 “With a panel this large, and with all the pressure that goes with prosecuting the ‘Trial of the Century,’ it is to be expected that there will be differences in opinions, theories and strategies. We would like to assure the public that whatever issues there may be within the panel, everyone’s goal is the same: to ensure the conviction of those accused of murdering 58 people,” he said. 

Private prosecutors left out 

The differences in opinion over what legal tactics the prosecution team should take have caused a rift between some private and public prosecutors.

As the rift started in 2011, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima sacked Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon and his team. He was replaced by Assistant Regional State Prosecutor Peter Medalle, who later on was replaced by then Taguig City Prosecutor Archimedes Manabat. 

Up until the end of 2012, Quinsayas said, private prosecutors were still actively part of the decision-making process of the panel.  

But both Santos and Quinsayas said they observed a shift in the arrangements soon after legal defense counsel Sigfrid Fortun visited the office of Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III in January 2013. 

Santos said Baraan had failed to inform them of the meeting and she only found out about the incident through another source. “I put malice to it. One is, he didn’t tell us. He should have told us right away. I learned about it from others. He should be fortright.”

When it was Quinsayas’ turn to ask Baraan about what was discussed in his meeting with Fortun, Baraan told her it was a legal opinion about a case involving the property of his in-laws. 

“I took his answer at face value,” Quinsayas said. 

After the meeting, both Santos and Quinsayas said they were kept out of the loop and were no longer consulted  on crucial decisions regarding the legal strategies of the prosecution.

When the prosecution filed a motion to drop alleged backhoe operator Bong Andal as a witness and instead include him as one of the accused, Quinsayas said private prosecutors only learned of the move through news reports. 

Witnesses

In an interview with ABS-CBN’s Bandila on March 26, Baraan defended the government lawyers’ move to rest their case. “We had an opening to ask for separate trials for some of the accused whom we know, based on our evaluation, we have good evidence against,” he said. 

In December 2013, the Supreme Court released new guidelines to expedite the Ampatuan trial. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the guidelines “compelled the court to order the prosecutors to manifest against which of the accused they had no more evidence to present.”

Baraan told Bandila he did not want to reveal the prosecution’s tactics but gave assurances that there is “a strategy here.” 

Santos, however, disagreed with the state prosecutor’s manifestation in court that there was no more evidence to present. 

After the meeting between Baraan and Fortun in late January 2013, Quinsayas said the prosecution team was supposed to do field work in Mindanao to vet possible witnesses for the trial but public prosecutors failed to arrive.

In a February 2013 meeting, Quinsayas said they were informed that public prosecutors would no longer be allowed to go to Maguindanao to vet witnesses due to security risks. 

“I told them, wait a minute. DOJ is not just a simple office along Padre Faura. You are the DOJ. You would be able to mobilize the PNP (Philippine National Police) and AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines),” she said. 

Since trial began, Santos said it was her clients who had assisted in convincing witnesses to file their testimonies. 

“There are lots of witnesses. They (government prosecutors) just don’t want to go to Mindanao to vet them,” she said. 

Both Santos and Quinsayas are considering making a manifestation in court opposing the action of the prosecution to rest their case should the plan push through.  Rappler.com

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