Maguindanao massacre: Guilty verdict seen

Janvic Mateo - The Philippine Star
Maguindanao massacre: Guilty verdict seen
Communications Undersecretary Joel Egco, executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, expressed optimism that primary defendant Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. would be convicted of multiple murder in connection with the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre.
Rhoderick Beñez

MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang is confident that the principal suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre of 58 persons, including 32 journalists, will be convicted early next year.

Communications Undersecretary Joel Egco, executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, expressed optimism that primary defendant Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. would be convicted of multiple murder in connection with the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre.

“We believe that we really have a strong case against them,” Egco told The Chiefs aired on Cignal TV’s One News on Wednesday night.

“I’m very positive that there will be at least partial judgment here. And if none of the principal accused is found guilty once the promulgation is over, I will resign,” he added.

In response, Ampatuan’s lawyer Raymond Fortun reminded government prosecutors of the code of professional responsibility that prohibits lawyers from making public statements on a pending case that could arouse public opinion for or against a party.

“For this reason, Andal Ampatuan Jr. declines to make any statement on the outcome of the case,” Fortun told The STAR.

Egco, a former media practitioner, said they are closely monitoring the case that has already lasted for almost nine years.

He cited information from Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who said on Monday that they expect promulgation of judgement on the first quarter of next year.

Court records showed that the camp of Ampatuan has finished presenting witnesses and has submitted a formal offer of evidence, which includes documents supposedly proving that he was at the municipal hall and not at the massacre site when the incident happened.

The prosecution panel has submitted last Nov. 20 their comments and opposition to some of the evidence submitted by Ampatuan.

Once the court rules on the formal offer of evidence, the two camps would have to submit their respective memoranda before the case would be submitted for decision.

The Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 under the sala of Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has not released a timeline for the case.

Aside from Ampatuan Jr., also awaiting decision are multiple murder cases filed against more than 100 other suspects, including Ampatuan’s brothers former governor Zaldy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and Anwar Ampatuan Sr.

The prosecution panel has also submitted its memorandum against former ARMM officer-in-charge Sajid Islam Ampatuan, who was earlier allowed by the court to post bail.

Out of the initial 197 suspects charged for the massacre, 117 have been arrested. Four have died in detention, including Ampatuan clan patriarch and former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr.

Charges against nine others were dropped, including the three who were allowed to become state witnesses. In addition to Sajid Islam, 10 others are out on bail.

Meanwhile, 80 of the suspects remain at large.

On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre that has been viewed as the worst poll-related violence in the country, Malacañang assured the public that justice would prevail on the Maguindanao massacre case.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Department of Justice (DOJ) is doing its “level best” to resolve the case.

“We’re not surprised that the wheels of justice in this country grind so slow. Many cases take so long, but what is important to us is justice will prevail. Rule of law will have to be observed regardless of who are the persons involved in any particular case,” Panelo said in a press briefing yesterday.

“The DOJ is the one responsible for prosecuting the case and so it is doing its job, its level best to speed up prosecution of the case,” he added. 

A total of 58 people were killed in the massacre, which is also regarded as the single worst attack on the press.

The victims were on their way to a local Commission on Elections office to witness the filing of the certificate of candidacy for Maguindanao governor of then Buluan vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu when they were flagged and killed by gunmen in Ampatuan town. 

The incident prompted then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to place Maguindanao under martial law. 

Members of the Ampatuan clan, political rivals of the Mangudadatus, were accused of ordering the killing. 

Panelo is a former lawyer of the Ampatuans, a connection that sparked outrage after the announcement of his appointment as presidential spokesman in 2016.

Duterte had appointed Panelo as chief presidential legal counsel and later as spokesman. 

Ruling’s impact

According to Egco, a guilty verdict against Ampatuan will have a positive impact on efforts of the government to address the killings of journalists.

He noted that the Philippines is still considered one of the worst countries for journalists because of the unresolved Maguindanao massacre, which involved 32 media workers.

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus said the resolution of the case would send a message to those who abuse power.

“It will send a signal that whether you are a powerful ally of a powerful official, there will be justice down the line. There will be that message,” she said in the same program.

De Jesus, however, noted that the long trial shows how the culture of impunity thrives in the country.

“It’s a testimony against the culture of impunity. It is difficult for anyone, for any of our systems to address crimes that involve someone in power,” she added.

The Nov. 23, 2009 massacre claimed the lives of 58 people who joined the convoy led by Genalyn Mangudadatu, wife of then Buluan vice mayor and now Maguindanao governor Mangudadatu.

Genalyn was supposed to file the certificate of candidacy of her husband at the provincial capitol in Shariff Aguak when they were stopped and brutally murdered by more than one hundred men.

Also dead were Mangudadatu’s sisters, lawyers, aides and private citizens who were mistook to be part of the convoy.

Charged with multiple murder were prominent members of the Ampatuan clan, including Andal Jr. whom Mangudadatu was supposed to challenge for the gubernatorial post in 2010.

Dozens of suspects were surnamed Ampatuan, while the rest were either members of the Philippine National Police or the supposed private army of the political clan.

Impunity persists

Nine years after the massacre, De Jesus said the culture of impunity remains an unresolved problem in the country.

In addition to 12 reported cases of journalist killings under the present administration, she also noted 86 reported incidents of harassment, including attempted slays, digital threats, physical and verbal assaults and preventing from covering events. – With Alexis Romero




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