Massacre verdict brings justice and, advocates hope, reforms as well
Rep. Esmael Mangudadatu (Maguindanao) raises his fist after the verdict in the Ampatuan massacre case was announced at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig on December 19, 2019.
Philstar.com/Erwin Cagadas Jr.

Massacre verdict brings justice and, advocates hope, reforms as well

Franco Luna (Philstar.com) - December 19, 2019 - 1:39pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 2:06 p.m.) — The long-awaited verdict on the Ampatuan massacre case should lead to reforms to address the culture of impunity in the Philippines and the existence of "private armies" serving politicians, advocacy groups said Thursday.

The primary accused in the Ampatuan massacre case, particularly Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr. and his brother Zaldy Ampatuan, were found guilty during the promulgation of the decision for the case on Thursday, December 19.

The brothers were convicted of 57 counts of murder and were sentenced to reclusion perpetua without parole. The massacre has been called the worst election-related killing in history as well as the worst attack on journalists, 32 of whom were among the victims. 

However, Datu Akmad "Tato" Ampatuan, Sr. and Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan were also acquitted of their alleged involvement in the killings on November 23, 2009.

Another 80 other accused remain at large.

Culture of impunity 

In a statement after the verdict was read, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said that "the truth is this decision should have come sooner," although she also called it "a step towards the full measure of justice."

The multiple convictions mark the end of a decade-long case that saw countless delays that many academics and media groups have said were indicative of a culture of impunity blanketing the Philippine justice system. 

RELATED: Philippines has worst impunity in the world 45 years since Martial Law

"A decade is too long for the families of the bereaved, as justice delayed is justice denied," Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International regional director, said.

“With the fact that one of the accused Ampatuan was acquitted, some of the accused were out on bail and other legal remedies were accorded to the Ampatuans because of their friendship with powerful people, this decade-long trial is already a form of injustice for the families of the victims," rights group Karapatan said in a separate statement.

Ahead of the promulgation, Rep. Esmael Mangudadatu (Maguindanao), who lost relatives in the massacre, called it a litmus test of the country's body of laws. 

Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. (Cavite) called the decision an "opportunity to redeem the trust of the people in the present justice system of the country."

Amnesty International said even witnesses to the massacre, as well as their families, had been harassed and even killed as the case dragged on. 

"No one is known to have been held accountable for these killings," AI said. 

Brazenness in killing 

Rights group Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, said the verdict should lead to an end to political warlordism and "further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long."

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said "this verdict should prompt the country’s political leaders to finally act to end state support for “private armies” and militias that promotes the political warlordism that gave rise to the Ampatuans."

In a press briefing heldPresidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that the verdict meant that "the rule of law has prevailed," adding however, that the final verdict would still be with the Supreme Court.

HRW has long been calling for judicial reform in the wake of the many delays in the case.

“While there have been efforts at judicial reform, legacies of dysfunction in the country remain alive and well,” HRW researcher Carlos Conde said in a statement in November. 

Lawyer Nena Santos, who represented a number of the families of those slain in Maguindanao, said the brazenness behind the killing demonstrated the impunity afforded to the Ampatuan clan. 

READ: HRW urges authorities to arrest Ampatuan massacre suspects still at large

"There were already so many killings in Maguindanao allegedly perpetrated by the [Ampatuan] clan [but] many people who were victims are afraid to go and file a case because of the fear of how powerful the clan was," she said.

"The brazenness is there because they thought they controlled the police, the military [and] the political arena there in Maguindanao. And they were close with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, so that emboldens them to [carry out] this heinous crime."

Former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, speaking before the promulgation, said he doubts that the conviction could end impunity on its own. 

A continuing process 

For Te, dismantling a long-ingrained culture of impunity needs "consistent pattern of being able to apprehend those who have committed crimes or felonies, to try and convict them [have] the sentence executed."

"This is not the end of the entire case, this is just the start of another long process, because those who have been convicted will go up on appeals," he said.

"Assuming that at the end of this process, the Supreme Court affirms the conviction, then they go back down to have this sentence executed, and that's the start of another long process."

RELATED: Palace: No culture of impunity in Philippines

Mangudadatu echoed these sentiments in an earlier interview, expressing certainty that the allies of the accused—now convicts—would attempt to delay the case further through the Court of Appeals. 

"They will rattle the minds of the judges in filing all these motions. I am not a lawyer, but I know they will do that," he said in Filipino.

But for the Human Rights Watch, it's still a start, especially for those who lost family members. 

"This momentous verdict should help provide justice to the families of the victims, and build toward greater accountability for rights abuses in the country," they said in their statement. 

"Advocates should use this verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long." 

After the sentencing, Mangudadatu said that if he would have it his way, Datu Unsay Ampatuan and other principal accused should be executed.

Attack on free press 

For his part, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra lauded Judge Solis-Reyes for ensuring that "the deaths of so many victims including members of the journalism profession will find their day of redemption."

Of the 58 who were slain that day, 32 were journalists and media workers. 

Amnesty International said in their statement that to this day “the Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, with at least 15 journalists killed just this year in attacks believed to be related to their work."

RELATED: Duterte, state agents behind 69 cases of attacks vs journalists — press groups

Through the years, the country has consistently ranked among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists-with the likes of Mexico, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president himself has sometimes attacked members of the press, accusing them of being biased and paid to make him look bad.

He has also threatened to bar the renewal of the legislative franchise of broadcast giant ABS-CBN. 

"The country must be safe for members of the press and for anyone exercising their democratic rights," Hontiveros said.

"The road to justice ends when we ensure that any similar attack on the free press and our democratic rights never happens again." — with reports from The STAR/Edu Punay

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