MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – After two presidents, the Philippines' worst case of election-related violence has yet to achieve closure.
In 2009, then-Buluan vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu challenged Andal Ampatuan Jr, a member of the powerful Ampatuan clan in Mindanao, for the position of governor.
His supporters, family, and members of the media were on their way to the provincial capitol for the filing of Mangudadatu's certificate of candidacy when the convoy was attacked. 58 people – including 32 journalists – were killed in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.
November 23, 2016 marks the 7th year since the tragedy, which the Committee to Protect Journalists has called the single deadliest attack against the media.
But to date, no one has been convicted over the massacre. There are 197 accused in the case, and 106 remain on trial before the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 221. But one of the main suspects, Ampatuan clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr, had already died in July 2015.
But with a new administration now in power, the families of the victims have pinned their hopes on President Rodrigo Duterte for a resolved case.
Several days after Duterte's win in the May 2016 polls, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines expressed "serious misgivings" when it was announced that lawyer Salvador Panelo was to become Duterte's spokesman.
In 2014, Panelo was hired as defense lawyer of Ampatuan Jr. He had been quoted in a Philippine Star article as saying that the Ampatuans were innocent, and that they were "framed to seize political power."
He withdrew as legal counsel in 2015 as requested by his client due to “personal reasons.” (READ: Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo and his high-profile cases)
But Panelo downplayed these concerns, saying in a May 2016 interview: "We will make sure that justice will be given to everyone under the law."
He also said that the President was not the kind of man who could be easily influenced or one who was sought for favors.
Task force on media killings
In mid-July, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said a presidential task force was set to be created to work on cases of killings involving members of the media.
Speaking over state-run radio dzRB, Andanar said that solving the Maguindanao massacre "has always been the cry of the people of the media and concerned quarters of the country."
"It's about time, and I believe that the current justice secretary also would agree with me, we should [look at] past cases and give justice to families who have been victimized by overdue process," he added. (READ: Task force on media killings to also tackle Maguindanao massacre)
In August, families of the Maguindanao massacre victims sought a dialogue with Duterte and urged him to speed up the resolution of the case.
Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu said the kin of the victims wanted a statement of support from the President.
Mangudadatu added that Duterte, when he was still Davao City mayor, had even provided legal advice on pursuing the criminal cases against the perpetrators of the attack, according to a Philippine Star report.
Three months after Andanar's announcement, Duterte signed the administrative order creating the "Presidential Task Force on Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of the Members of the Media."
The task force, chaired by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II and co-chaired by Andanar, is mandated to ensure a safe environment for members of the media.
In August, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said the 7-year-old case may soon be up for decision, with the trial reaching the tailend of the hearings.
In an update released by the Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday, November 23, a total of 232 witnesses have been heard by the court, involving 131 prosecution witnesses, 58 private complainants, and 43 defense witnesses.
All bail proceedings have been resolved, except for Ampatuan Jr, whose formal offer of evidence (FOE) was deemed submitted for resolution on October 14, 2016. The prosecution has already rested its case, and it is now the turn of the defense to present its evidence-in-chief.
Of the 9 accused who were the subject of the first batch of defense FOEs resolved by the Court on June 13, 2016, only one is still presenting defense evidence.
The second batch of defense FOEs, with 45 of the accused involved, has been resolved on November 15, 2016. The initial presentation of their defense evidence will start on January 19, 2017.
According to the SC update, only the following incidents are set to be resolved: the resolution of the bail application of Ampatuan Jr, and his subsequent trial-in-chief; the resolution of the remaining defense FOEs; and the conclusion of the presentation of defense evidence.
Once the parties have rested their cases, these will be submitted for the decision of the court.
The Supreme Court earlier released rules to speed up the massacre trial. Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 has been assigned to focus solely on the case, with 3 assisting judges handling minor motions and other pending cases in Reyes' court.
Seven years hence, accountability for the mass murders still has not been established. – Rappler.com