World awaits gov’t action on Ampatuan massacre case

Angela Casauay
There is growing frustration among relatives of the victims who feel that the 5-year-old case has been overtaken by recent events and controversies
NEVER FORGET. Justice remains elusive for the 58 victims of the Ampatuan massacre 5 years since the gruesome crime. Photo by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Five years is too long to resolve a crime of this magnitude.

This, according to members of the international media and relatives of victims who visited the memorial site of the worst election-related violence in the country on Friday, November 21 – two days before the 5th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre. 

“The Philippines is ranked as one of the worst for journalists. Ongoing attacks against journalists – it’s a major concern for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). We continue coming here to raise awareness. Globally, the whole world is watching and we really call on the government of the Philippines to take some serious action,” said Jane Worthington, deputy director of IFJ Asia-Pacific. 

There is frustration on the part of families who are begging for justice and closure. Some relatives of the victims feel that the case has been overtaken by recent events. 

“Five years na wala pa rin e. Ewan ko kung may pag-asa ba o wala ba. Hindi namin alam. Umabot na lang sa pork barrel, (Typhoon) Yolanda, ‘yung sa amin wala pa rin. Parang lumala talaga ang sitwasyon,“said Mikko Razon, son of Fernando Razon, one of the massacre victims. 

(It’s been 5 years and yet, nothing still. I don’t know if there’s still hope or not. We don’t know. The pork barrel issue, Typhoon Yolanda happened and yet nothing has still happened to our case. It seems the situation has worsened.)

REMEMBER. A mass is heard in honor of the massacre victims. Photo by Rappler

On November 23, 2009, 58 individuals, including 32 journalists, were buried using a backhoe after armed men – allegedly ordered by then Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr –  massacred them in a bid to stop the wife of his political rival, Esmael Mangudadatu from filing his certificate of candidacy for Maguindanao governor. Mangudadatu won and is still holding the post. 

A delegation of international journalists is in the country to follow up on the status of the case 5 years since the massacre took place.  

Mike Dobbie, communications manager of Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said the Philippines is the “epicenter” of the problem of impunity.

The Philippine government must do a better job in protecting witnesses, Dobbie said.

Days before, a possible witness, said to be a former driver of the Ampatuans, was killed in an ambush in the town of Shariff Aguak while on his way to a meeting with government prosecutors.  He was with another potential witness, a former bagman of the political clan, who survived the attack.

ACTION. Mike Dobbie, communication manager of Australia's Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance says the government must do more to protect witnesses. Photo by Rappler

Dobbie said the incident puts a spotlight on the Philippine government’s inadequacy in solving the crime. 

“It’s another sign that the justice system is broken. If the government cannot protect witnesses in a trial as important to this, as so crucial to Filipino history as this, then something is wrong. Again, it’s this culture of impunity. If the government is not doing anything, putting in resources to protect witnesses, then something is wrong,” Dobbie said.  

‘Case too complex’ 

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Friday observers of the case must understand how complex the case is.  

It takes an average of 10 years for a single case in the Philippines to be resolved. The Maguindanao massacre involves 58 victims, with 197 accused on trial and close to 500 witnesses being presented from both sides. 

“They should understand that the wheels of justice is turning, the case is moving. The judge is doing – trying – her best, so are the public prosecutors handling the case,” De Lima told reporters.

She added: “We each have our own opinions, especially those who can’t understand the legal processes. It’s easy to look at the case from the outside and look at the shortcomings of those handling the case. But if you look at the overview of the case, if they only know how many witnesses are being presented, they would know why.”

The prosecution has rested its case against some of the accused – a move opposed by two private lawyers

To speed up the resolution of the case, the Supreme Court has assigned a third judge to assist Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 Justice Jocelyn Solis-Reyes.  

The High Court has also released a memorandum providing for procedures designed to remove stumbling blocks that could hamper the case. 

These include requiring lawyers to submit judicial affidavits for witnesses in question-and-answer format instead of taking the witness stand, and allowing Reyes to decide on cases that are ripe for resolution. 

De Lima is still hopeful of a conviction by 2016. President Benigno Aquino III had earlier said he was also “frustrated” over the slow pace of the trial. 

Meanwhile, family members can only wait for closure. – Rappler.com