After 8 years, what's next in the Maguindanao massacre trial?

MANILA, Philippines – Over half a decade since the brutal killing of 58 people, justice remains elusive for the victims and families of the Maguindanao massacre. 

Despite Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno calling the Maguindanao massacre trial one of the "largest criminal cases facing the Philippine judiciary," none of the 188 suspects officially accused in the case has been convicted. 

As the years dragged on for the trial, several promises have been made by the past 3 administrations to see the case to closure.

Rappler spoke with lawyer Gilbert Andres of the Center for International Law (Centerlaw), which represents some of the 58 victims, to help put in context the trial on the deadliest attack on journalists in the world and worst election-related case of violence in Philippine history. 

Possible convictions for at least 3 of the main accused: Datu Unsay Andal Ampatuan Jr, Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan Sr, and Anwar Ampatuan Sr. 

With the bail petition of Ampatuan Jr denied in May and the prosecution’s filing of memoranda for the two elder Ampatuans, their cases are another step closer to reaching a decision. 

Almost a decade into the trial, justice is nowhere in sight for the 58 victims and their families. Not a single conviction has been made for any of the 197 originally accused – a number that has decreased to 188 suspects officially accused, as of Novermber this year, according to the Presidential Task Force on Media Security. 

ELUSIVE JUSTICE. The families of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre seek justice for their loved ones.

File photo by Leanne Jazul/Rappler

For one, the Maguindanao massacre trial is a stark reminder of the country's notoriously slow justice system as well as its systematic weaknesses in delivering speedy resolution. 

"The Maguindanao massacre cases reveal that it's really difficult, really time consuming for justice here in the Philippines. Somehow, it also reveals – as I've said before, systematic weaknesses in our justice system. There's need to review our rules of court, especially the rules on criminal procedure so as to really be efficient in the disposition of cases. I say this not just for the victims but also for the accused. If there's efficient disposition of cases, it will also benefit everyone," said Andres. 

It's also a glaring reminder of the culture of impunity that exists in the Philippines and the need to respect human rights.

In a statement released by the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, the group said: "The fact that no one has yet been convicted nearly eight years after the massacre underscores the fact impunity reigns in this country. Despite repeated promises to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Benigno Aquino government utterly failed... Impunity exists to this day under the Rodrigo Duterte government, which is not doing any better than his predecessors."

Andres added, "It's really respect for human rights. And the reverse of that is there should really be no impunity. We should really effectively investigate and prosecute any violations of human rights so that this will not happen again."

With 32 media practitioners among the 58 victims of the massacre, the case also indicates the state of the free press in the country. The massacre was dubbed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the single deadliest event for journalists in the world.

"There's really a need to respect the 4th estate, the media, the journalist… the Philippine state has to respect the 4th estate, has to respect the purpose of why we have the media, which is to really report issues of national concern," said Andres. 

The Supreme Court (SC) already issued special rules to help speed up the trial process in 2013. 

Andres however said the arrest of the 82 suspects still at large could help with the speedy resolution of the trial. 

“There’s really a need to arrest those persons. So we call on the DOJ under the secretary to really use all means under the NBI and also we call on the DILG and PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa to really exert all efforts. That's a challenge to Chief Bato to really arrest all of the remaining accused who are at large,” Andres said.

NO JUSTICE. No convictions have been made in the Maguindanao massacre trials 8 years since the killings.

Photo by Rappler

Three things: for the DOJ to provide a sufficient budget for the trial, for the Office of the Solicitor General to file a petition for review regarding the affirmation of Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan’s bail plea, and for the Duterte administration to provide compensation for the 58 victims. 

“Compensation is different from criminal liability of the perpetrators. The Philippine state has the obligation to protect the right to life of all the victims, including the journalist victims and yet this has not been heeded. We hope that President Duterte will actually grant compensation to the victims of the Maguindanao massacre based on the right to life…It is really to assuage the rights of the victims. It's a remedy under international law,” Andres said.

There is precedent in the Philippines for providing compensation to victims and their families. In 2013, the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III gave compensation to the family of a Taiwanese fisherman who was killed by the Philippine Coast Guard. 

The lengthy trial of the massacre is not without its lessons. Nearly a decade into case proceedings, Andres pointed out that key reforms in the justice system would include strengthening the witness protection program as well as law enforcement capabilites. 

Since the start of trial in January 2010, several witnesses have been killled to prevent them from testifying against the powerful Ampatuan clan of Mindanao. Some of the accused have also been released on bail, with temporary freedom granted to Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan in 2015. 

Death was also quicker than justice when Andal Ampatuan Sr died in 2015 from liver cancer. He was a main suspect accused in the case. Eight years later, 82 of the188 individuals officially accused remain at large. 

"The fact that there are really a large number of accused – 197 originally, it's related to the sense of impunity because a lot of people were involved. This was the result of the sense of impunity. In fact those who were involved were state agents," Andres said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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