Journalists, lawyers call for state accountability after Ampatuan verdict

MANILA, Philippines – The verdict may be out, but journalists and lawyers are calling for a continued fight for the victims of the Ampatuan massacre and accountability from the state.

Lawyer and chairman of the Free Legal Assistance Group Chel Diokno spoke about the lessons learned and key takeaways from the decade-long wait for justice at the post-verdict forum held on Friday, December 20. (TIMELINE: The long road to justice for Ampatuan massacre victims)

"What has been or has there been any administrative liability on the accused who belong to the government?" Diokno asked at the forum, which was organized by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network.

A total of 62 Philippine National Police (PNP) personnel were charged in court for the Ampatuan massacre. Of the 62, at least 19 were found guilty and 36 were acquitted on Thursday, December 19.

According to the PNP, 17 of the acquitted were placed on automatic leave of absence without pay while under detention but are now allowed to rejoin the force if they want to. (READ: PNP: Acquitted policemen in Ampatuan massacre case can return to service)

Diokno said that even though there was no proof beyond reasonable doubt of guilt for those acquitted, only substantial evidence is needed for administrative liability.

"Because if you think about it, and you think about how this case unfolded, I think the participation of how the Philippine National Police elements who were accused was vital to the consummation of the crime. So [the public officers] should also be accountable... on the administrative side," Diokno said in a mix of English and Filipino.

National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) chair Nonoy Espina echoed Diokno's sentiments at the forum, where he pointed out that there is no legal precedent to make the state accountable to support the victims' families.

"I think that should be a wakeup call also, [for there to be] political, legal reforms, to make the state accountable by crimes committed by its own agents," he said. "Whether [it's] cases like the Ampatuan massacre, which basically we can't lay it down on the Ampatuans, but they were state agents supported by... the government back then, or cases like our everyday tokhang which are perpetuated by state agents on the directive of the central government itself."

Espina was referring to President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, which has claimed the lives of 5,526 people from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2019, according to the government's count. Rights groups, however, estimate that the number of casualties exceed 20,000.

The Ampatuan massacre, which happened on November 23, 2009, is known as the single deadliest attack on journalists worldwide. On that day, 58 people, 32 of whom were journalists, were shot to death and buried in Sitio Masalay in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. (READ: Children bear the brunt 10 years since Ampatuan massacre)

Ten years after the incident, Ampatuan brothers Datu Andal Jr Zaldy and Anwar Sr, along with 26 others, were convicted of 57 counts of murder. Their brother Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan was acquitted.

At the forum, Diokno, Espina, and fellow panelists forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun and Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus, called for the continued support of the victims' families as they go through the appeals process. – Rappler.com

Vernise Tantuco

Vernise Tantuco is on Rappler's Research Team, fact checking suspicious claims, wrangling data, and telling stories that need to be heard.

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