Zaldy and the President’€™s Ear

How Zaldy Ampatuan got to the Palace and what it could mean for the government

MANILA, Philippines – At least three sources have identified him as Eldy Ferenal, a businessman in Cotabato, and according to Maguindanao Gov. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, Ampatuan’s link to the government.MANILA, Philippines – With Zaldy Ampatuan teary-eyed as he vowed to tell all against his father and brother, hardly anyone noticed the other man in the ABS-CBN video that aired on July 11, 2011. He was in white, smiling beside Ampatuan as the latter shook the hand of reporter Anthony Taberna.

Si Eldy ang brains diyan, siya ang lumalapit,” said Mangudadatu, who lost a wife, two sisters and other relatives in the killings. “Pagpunta sa selda niZaldy, nandoon si Eldy Ferenal eh. Bakit nakapasok si Eldy Ferenal?Ano ba ang role niya?” (Eldy is the brains behind this. He was seen in Zaldy’s cell. How could he have entered it? What was his role?)

Ferenal is married to the cousin of Ampatuan’s wife, Johaira “Bongbong” Midtimbang.

A Mindanao-based source allied with the current administration and involved in Maguindanao politics said Ferenal worked as a contractor for the Ampatuans, bagging infrastructure projects in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) where Zaldy Ampatuan won two terms as governor.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ferenal runs important errands for the Ampatuans. “Kung merong iutos ang mga Ampatuan na magdala ng… regalo para sa mga pulitiko o militar, siya ang nagfa-facilitate.”  (Newsbreak tried but failed to contact Ferenal for an interview.)

Ferenal also dabbles in national politics.

In the 2010 presidential race, the Aquino campaign team tapped his services to help them in ARMM. It was during the campaign when he was first introduced to Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo, according to the same Mindanao-based source.

Tumulong iyan sa kampanya,” Robredo told Newsbreak. (He helped in the campaign). “Of course, the President doesn’t know him. Kami ang mga nangangampanya eh di kami ang kausap [niya noon],” he added. Robredo organized the provincial campaign sorties of then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III.

Mangudadatu believes it is Ferenal who is working on the possibility of Ampatuan turning state witness. “Siya ang kumbaga nag-bridge doon sa DILG.”

Robredo admitted Ferenal was among those who initially hinted that Ampatuan is willing to offer information to the government. “Nabanggit niya na balita niya, wala naman dito na sabi na direkta, ‘Parang balita ko si X gustong magsalita.’ Ang sabi ko lang, ‘Kung gusto niyang magsalita eh di magsabi siya kasi ang ayaw ko nga it will appear that we solicited this through a third party.’” (He shared the information that Ampatuan was willing to talk. I told him that if indeed Ampatuan wants to talk then he himself should say so and not go through a third party.)

Hindi ko gagawin na para bang cloak and dagger, backdoor type, walang ganyan. Gusto mo kaming kausapin, [dapat] harapan.” (I didn’t want to do this backdoor. I wanted everything out in the open.)

And so Ampatuan talked to Robredo—as early as last May. Robredo said he informed the President about this.

The meeting between Robredo and Ampatuan happened two months before the suspended governor granted interviews to ABS-CBN, GMA 7 and Al Jazeera.

The interviews were embargoed for two weeks, with GMA News Online saying the request came from Ampatuan’s lawyer. But one of the counsels for Ampatuan, Howard Calleja, denied asking for an embargo.

Jail visit

In May, at the height of allegations of VIP treatment for the Ampatuans, Robredo conducted surprise visits at the Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig.

In one of those visits, he was about to leave when Zaldy Ampatuan approached him and asked, “Can I talk to you?”

Sensing Ampatuan’s unease with the presence of his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., in the room, Robredo told the suspended governor to formalize his request.

One of the lawyers for Ampatuan, Redemberto Villanueva, then wrote Robredo to ask for an audience.

Robredo informed President Aquino about the request and was instructed, “You just listen.”

Days later, he was back in Bicutan. After two months, Ampatuan would tell the media what he told Robredo.

“Willing po ako mag-testify, na sabihin kahit sino man ang involved, magulang ko man o kapatid, at kahit na sino mang involved para sa ikalulutas ng problemang ito at pawang katotohanan lamang ang aking sasabihin.” (I am willing to testify and identify who were involved, even if they include my parent or sibling. This way we can solve this problem. I will tell the truth.)

Zaldy Ampatuan is accused of conspiring with his father and brothers including prime suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr., to carry out the massacre on November 23, 2009. At least 57 people were killed, mostly women and journalists.

The crime is the worst election-related violence in Philippine history, and the single deadliest attack on the press.

Murder and elections

The Ampatuan scion maintains he knew nothing about the massacre as he was in Davao City at the time of the planning and in Malacañang on the day of the killings. He is fighting his inclusion in the case through a petition pending at the Court of Appeals.

Calleja, however, said his client got information about the massacre from his fellow detainees.

Despite criticism that Ampatuan’s statements are hearsay, Calleja is convinced his testimony will help obtain justice for the victims and the wrongly accused.

“You can pinpoint liability very fast. You only need a few witnesses and that already solidifies your case and you have a conviction in a year’s time. Don’t you like that?”

The government answered Calleja’s question: No.

It shut the door on Ampatuan turning state witness in the massacre case, saying there was no formal offer, and he does not qualify because he denies guilt.

But another door was opened. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Ampatuan may testify in other cases, possibly even as a star witness.

Katulad ng mga sinasabi ‘yung sa mga electoral fraud, itong anomalies, other anomalies involving the previous administration, involving the former president—fine. If he can help, welcome,” De Lima said in a Palace press briefing.

In TV interviews and unsigned affidavits reported in newspapers, Ampatuan accused former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband of using Maguindanao to cheat for the administration’s senatorial candidates in the 2007 elections.

He also said Mrs. Arroyo received P200 million in kickbacks from farm-to-market road projects in Central Mindanao.

Calleja stressed that Ampatuan is not asking for any concession. “We are open to anything but we leave it up to the government.”

Upon orders from the President, De Lima and Robredo are assessing Ampatuan’s statements.

“We’re open in the sense that we will listen but we’re not open in the sense that there will be some tradeoffs here,” said Robredo.

For now, Robredo said Ampatuan’s statements are not enough as these are secondhand information attributed to his father.

Just recently, Robredo got another letter from Ampatuan’s camp, asking for a meeting.  “Palagay ko hindi siya happy na hindi kami happy.” (I think he’s not happy that we’re unhappy.) The meeting was scheduled for this week.

Only in the Philippines

One of the lawyers for the victims’ families, Harry Roque, calls government’s response to Ampatuan’s statements “only in the Philippines.”

“In the US, if Osama bin Laden were still alive, the secretary of Homeland Security will not go to his jail to talk to him just because he wrote a letter and will certainly not relay information from Osama bin Laden to the president. The Filipinos are screwed!”

Robredo explained he is just doing his job. “If this guy Ampatuan seeks anyone out, for instance, a government functionary, I think he’s obliged to listen para malaman mo ang katotohanan.”

Yung ARMM cases, ang sabi niya return to sender ang pera. Sino ba naman ang nagsabi na return to sender iyon maliban sa kanya? Kung hindi siya pakikinggan namin eh ‘di walang ganyan.”(If we didn’t listen to him, we would not have known the existence of a return-to-sender policy.)

Mangudadatu however has appealed to the government to look for witnesses other than Ampatuan and former Maguindanao election supervisor Lintang Bedol, whom he calls an Ampatuan hand.

“Why [does] the government need to ask Zaldy about the plunder case, poll fraud when in fact there are many people who can really testify what the past government did? We can even show the government that these are really the true witnesses kung lalabas itong kukunin natin.”

He added, “Kung gagamitin natin si Zaldy doon sa poll fraud, ano ang mangyayari ngayon? We, Filipinos, are fond of utang na loob, maawain. Hello? Hindi naman pwede yun.”

The Maguindanao governor and Roque fear that Ampatuan will be able to leave jail if admitted into the witness protection program for the cases to be filed against Arroyo.(Read: Trojan Horse)