On the second anniversary of the massacre of 32 journalists by then Maguindanao province governor Andal Ampatuan Sr’s private militia on 23 November 2009, Reporters Without Borders reiterates its full support for the families of the victims and voices its concern about the continuing impunity and the judicial system’s slowness.
“We are worried by the lack of progress in the judicial investigation and the repeated postponement of hearings,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Two years after the worst massacre ever suffered by the media, fewer than half of those responsible have been arrested and no one has been convicted. Most have not had precise charges brought against them while those behind the massacre are using every possible kind of appeal to escape justice. Impartial justice must be rendered without delay.
“We welcome the judicial system’s rejection of the appeals by several of the people involved but we remind it of its responsibility to the families of the 32 dead journalists. It would be unacceptable if these families had to wait indefinitely for the massacre’s instigators and perpetrators to be convicted. Both the credibility of Philippine justice and the safety of the country’s journalists for years to come are at stake.”
In the one of the latest developments in the case, at the start of November, an appeal court rejected a request by Zaldy Ampatuan, one of the leading defendants, to reestablish a decision by former justice minister Alberto Agra absolving him of complicity in the massacre’s planning and execution.
Zaldy Ampatuan is one of Andal Ampatuan Sr’s sons and, at the time of the massacre, was governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which includes Maguindanao province. On 16 November, he appealed against the rejection of his request to be withdrawn from the list of accused.
On 21 November, the families of the victim’s asked the justice minister to reject Zaldy Ampatuan’s offer to turn state witness in an electoral fraud case against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which would give him preferential treatment.
Ampatuan family on trial
There have been many twists and turns in the case in the past 10 months, some of which have highlighted the discrepancies in the judicial system’s regulations and the ineffective way the hearings are being conducted.
A hearing on the results of the autopsies on the victims was interrupted on 3 February by the widow of one of the journalist victims outside the courtroom shouting insults at the Ampatuan family’s lawyers. One of the defence lawyers, Andres Manuel, had just suggested that the victims may have died before being shot. He also suggested that they may have inflicted the injuries on themselves.
An appeal court ordered Monette Salasay, the widow of Mindanao Gazette journalist Napoleon Salaysay, and National Union of Journalists secretary-general Rowena Paraan on 12 April to explain comments attributed to them in a Philippine Daily Inquirer article which, according to the court, insinuated that its decisions were biased and corrupt. The order could lead to contempt of court proceedings resulting in imprisonment or a fine.
Andal Ampatuan Sr and nine other persons were formally charged on 27 May. Several NGOs condemned that fact that 21 other people, including five Ampatuan family members, had still not been charged.
Andal Ampatuan Sr pleaded not guilty on 1 June.
In an unprecedented decision, the supreme court gave its permission on 14 June for the trial to be covered live on radio and TV at the request of several news media and plaintiffs. Some media condemned the restrictions placed on the broadcasting of hearings.
On 1 July, regional trial court judge Jocelyn Reyes-Solis rejected requests made by Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr on 20 August and 16 September 2010 that testimony about his alleged involvement by 33 defendants and Ampatuan family security employee Kenny Dalandag be ruled inadmissible.
Later the same month, justice minister Leila de Lima rejected Zaldy Ampatuan’s request to be a state witness in a tax fraud case in exchange for his removal from the list of leading suspects. An appeal court also rejected the offer on 8 August.
The lawyers for the defence protested on 31 August that they had not been notified about a prosecution witness’s testimony in court. On 29 September, they made fun of the testimony of the mother of one of the victims.
Earlier this month, a police official said some of suspects, including Kanor Ampatuan and Bahnarin Ampatuan, were still hiding in areas controlled by the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In all, the police have arrested 93 people on suspicion of participating in massacre and are still looking for another 103.
During his election campaign in earlier 2010, President Benigno Aquino promised to combat impunity and referred repeatedly to the Maguindanao massacre. The widows of one of the victims appeared in one of his campaign spots.
Reporters Without Borders, which supports the campaign against impunity being waged by members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), urges President Aquino and his government to do everything possible to ensure the Maguindanao massacre trial’s successful conclusion in 2012 and to end the impunity still prevailing in the Philippines.