November 23, 2016 marks the seventh year since 58 people were mercilessly killed atop the hills of Sitio Masalay, Ampatuan, Maguindanao. Of the 58 victims, 32 were journalists who covered the filing of candidacy for provincial governor of then Buluan town vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, pitting him against the wishes of local strongman Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. that his son and namesake, then Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Jr., be left unchallenged for the post.
On Wednesday, some 2,557 days will have passed since the grisly incident, and government has failed to secure acourt conviction for a single perpetrator of the crime. Against the backdrop of a protracted legal battle, families of themassacre victims wait with increasingly dashed hopes that they will see a satisfactory closure of the case within their lifetimes.
Such a sorry state of the cause for justice fuels the situation of impunity in the country whereby the state is seemingly helpless at staving off the continuing phenomenon of journalists being harassed and killed.
Some 197 individuals were accused to have a hand in carrying out the brutality, although four have already died. Among the primary suspects, 28 bore the surname Ampatuan.
Of the remaining 193 people accused of complicity in the gruesome murder, 112 are detained and facing trial; 81 others are scot-free. The last arrest was on Akad Macaton last September 3. Prior to Macaton, the last accused to be arrested was Denga Mentol, also known as Tho Cario and/or Ronnie Ofong, on November 17, 2015.
The long wait for justice has afforded the accused the benefit of buying time against culpability as in the case of the 74-year old Andal Sr. who died of heart failure on July 17, 2015 while on detention. His family asserts that he died innocent of the multiple charges of murder leveled against him for the massacre.
Meanwhile, the slow grind of the judicial process increases the dangers faced by those seeking justice. For one, the death of Police Officer 1 Hernanie Decipulo in 2011 reeked of foul play. After the Prosecution petitioned his discharge to be a state witness, he allegedly jumped off the detention facility at Camp Bagong Diwa.
That a handful of accused were dying before the Court could render judgment has only added to the anxiety and concern of the victims’ families, Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times, “given how slow the judicial process has been on this case and given as well the seemingly determined efforts to frustrate justice by, among others, murdering, intimidating and harassing witnesses against the powerful Ampatuan clan.”
The situation on the Prosecution side does not offer any consolation for the victims’ families. At least four potential witnesses died since 2010, their deaths smelling of an attempt to conceal the truth. Dennis Sakal, the last prospective witness to be killed, was intercepted and riddled with bullets on his way to file his testimony at the Cotabato City Regional Trial Court. Earlier, a dismembered body believed to be that of potential witness Esmail Amil Anog was found in Sharrif Aguak town. Alijol Ampatuan and Suwaib “Jesse” Upham met equally tragic deaths before they could testify before the court.
Delays and delaying tactics
To reduce the backlog of unresolved petitions that barred the trial from moving at a faster pace, the Supreme Court declared Branch 221 of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court as a special court. To further hasten the proceedings,Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes was given two assisting judges.
Yet, such move fell short of fast-tracking the trial. Currently, the Defense panel has yet to begin the presentation of its evidence in chief as the formal offer of evidence filed by the prosecution against the second batch of accused remained sitting at Branch 221.
Add to that the fact that at one point, Branch 221 had to resolve more than 300 motions filed by the Defense panel, including bail petitions and demurrers by the accused to the evidence in chief of the Prosecution, and motions to hinder crucial
witnesses like former Ampatuan driver Kenny Dalandag and backhoe operator Bong Andal from testifying.
Likewise, a decision on the bail petition of Andal Ampatuan Jr. remains far from sight due to an unresolved motion for reconsideration he sought to present additional witnesses.
It did not help that both Defense and Prosecution panels had to reshuffle, at the expense of the pace of the case’s proceedings, and consequently, the dispensation of justice.
The Defense changed lawyers at least four times in the last few years, from Sigfrid Fortun and Andres Narvasa, to now Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, to Andres Manuel, and to Raymond Fortun, who first appeared last Sept. 20.
The Prosecution also did, equally at least four times, due to professional differences. Worse, in the middle of a premature move to rest the case two years ago, some of the panel members figured in a list of names allegedly receiving pay-offs from the principal accused to the tune of at least P20 million pesos.
Specks of hope
However, in the midst of unfortunate events that befall this case, specks of hope crop up once in a while. According to Nena Santos, one of the lawyers for the Prosecution, Senior Police Officer Rex Ariel Diongon has finally joined two of the previously accused who have been discharged as accused and are now state witnesses. Diongon finished testifying against Chief Inspector Zukarno Dicay, then deputy Maguindanao police director, and the other policemen and members of the Ampatuan clan accused of the crime.
On November 24, last year—one day after the sixth year of the massacre—the National Police Commission finally dismissed from service 21 police officers, including Superintendent Abusama Maguid, then acting Maguindanao police director, and his deputy, Dicay who ordered the setting up of a checkpoint where the convoy of vehicles was flagged down, while Maguid allegedly led the efforts to bury the bodies and other evidence for the gruesome crime.
But way before such decision, these same police officers were among the accused who were granted bail, supposedly for lack of solid evidence. Though with no means to produce the P11.6-million bail unlike the Ampatuans, all of them would continue to serve jail time.
If change is to be measured by the political landscape past the Ampatuan Massacre and way past the Aquino Administration, the result is nothing less than depressing. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism listed 40 Ampatuans gunning for seats in the last election. Five of them were guaranteed seats after running unopposed. Sajid Ampatuan, one of the accused who got freed on bail, sought reelection, albeit losing to a cousin, who is also an Ampatuan.
In all his six years in office, former President Benigno Aquino demonstrated a tepid interest in securing justice for the victims, as seen in statements like this, in a forum in Brussels: “Did [the journalists] die because they were investigative journalists? Were they exercising their profession in a responsible manner, living up to journalistic ethics? Or did they perish because of other reasons?”
And if in the coming days, change will be measured by the magnitude of the current administration’s commitment to protect journalists, President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncements rendered any such prospect bleak.
His pronouncements are even worse, as if inviting greater trouble. In a statement on June 1 this year, he said, “Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you’re exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”
The NUJP has said that such reckless remarks only embolden more perpetrators to launch online and offline attacks against journalists and worse, permanently silence them.
With a mounting death toll, and an environment that continues to allow for attacks against journalists and for perpetrators to escape punishment, it then comes as no surprise that the Philippines remains as the deadliest country for journalist, next to countries engulfed in war like Somalia, Iraq, and Syria, per the 2016 report of the Committee to Protect Journalists. A 25-year study done by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) placed the Philippines second to Iraq in number of journalists killed.
These appalling death numbers are underpinned by the very weaknesses in the country’s justice system, manifested in the snail-paced movement of the massacre case. There can be no real press freedom if journalists go about their work under this social condition.