11 years and a historic ruling later: Ampatuan massacre kin's fight for justice not over

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
11 years and a historic ruling later: Ampatuan massacre kin's fight for justice not over
Relatives and press freedom advocates hold up photos of the Ampatuan massacre victims at a press conference after the promulgation of the verdict in the case on December 19, 2019.
Philstar.com / Erwin Cagadas Jr.

MANILA, Philippines — Eleven years and one historic ruling later, the families of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre in 2009, where 58 people were killed in the worst case of election-related violence in Philippine history, continue to call for justice.

Grace Morales lost her husband Rosell — a reporter of News Focus — and sister Marites Cablitas — a radio reporter for DxBX — in the massacre.

When the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 convicted the Ampatuans of multiple counts of murder, Morales said they felt happy “because finally there is a conviction of those accused.”

Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes convicted Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., his brother Zaldy Ampatuan and 26 others guilty beyond reasonable doubt of 57 counts of murder. They were sentenced to up to reclusion perpetua without parole.

Fourteen police officers and one other man are found guilty as accessories and sentenced to up to 10 years and eight months of imprisonment.

Morales told Philstar.com in Filipino: “We are happy, of course, but we wish that all those involved and those who are still at-large will be arrested.”

“Even if it was only partial (justice), it is okay. But we will continue the fight of the families because we are still hoping that they will all pay for what they did and justice may truly be given to the victims,” she added.

READ: ‘Worth the wait’: Victims' kin welcome Ampatuan massacre case verdict but worry for their safety

Prosecutor General Benedicto Malcontento said in a text message that 76 of the accused are still at large.

Since the ruling was issued in December 2019, only four have been arrested. Malcontento identified them as Kagi Fraizal, Gambayan Kasim, PO1 Ysmael Baraquir and Alfie Pagabangan.

Continued fight for justice

Morales said they are among the families waiting for the Court of Appeals decision on their pleading seeking higher damages.

Solis-Reyes ordered the principal convicts to pay a total of over P155.6 million in damages to the heirs of the 57 victims. The court also granted the plea for actual damages of 12 of the 57 victims.

But lawyer Harry Roque — now presidential spokesperson — earlier said that the families should be given “substantially more” than P100,000 for moral damages,  P100,000 civil indemnity and P100,000 for exemplary damages.

Lawyer Nena Santos, private prosecutor for the families, said they are waiting for the order from the appeals court. They have so far submitted an appeals brief, which the court will review.

The family of Reynaldo Momay, the 58th victim of the Ampatuan massacre but whose murder case against the suspects was junked, also elevated their case to the Court of Appeals.

But this will not be the only fight for justice they would be joining.

Ampatuans appeal conviction

The Ampatuans have also launched their bids to reverse the Quezon city court’s guilty convict.

Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., alias “Unsay”, in January 2020 filed a notice of appeal to the Quezon City court so he can elevate the entire records of the courts to the Court of Appeals for review.

Other convicts, Anwar Ampatuan Sr. and sons Anwar Jr. and Anwar Sajid, have filed their motion for reconsideration before the Quezon City court, arguing that Judge Reyes relied heavily on the testimony of suspect-turned-state witness Sukarno Badal, whose credibility they questioned before the court.

RELATED: Key witness in Maguindanao massacre injured in ambush

Case still unresolved, families tell UNESCO

In September, the families also had to fight to correct the message that the case is now over.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization had earlier noted in its Observatory of Killed Journalists and in the 2020 Director-General Report on the Safety of Journalists that the Maguindanao massacre cases are deemed “resolved.”

A Philippine News Agency report on this said UNESCO is acknowledging the concrete efforts of the government in bringing to justice the suspects in the 2009 massacre.

Following an appeal by the families and by civil society organizations and journalists, UNESCO changed the classification to “ongoing/unresolved.”

Trauma lingers

When the massacre happened, Morales' children were still in elementary school and she did not immediately inform them of the tragedy, but they could not be protected from news of their father's and aunt’s deaths for long.

"I, too, had a difficult time, but in due time they understood it," she shared.

"There is trauma that happened so I do not always discuss this with them, but through the passing years, the children seem to have accepted it," she said.

She added that scholarships coursed through media groups helped the families cope with losses apart from losing loved ones: That of losing their means of financial support.

Their children — now aged 21,19 and 16 — have started joining their commemoration activities. "They now understand why it happened, and it is not so heavy now, although there is still anger and I understand it," she added.

Morales said commemoration activities will be scaled down this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They will not be able to visit the site of the massacre as they have been doing in the past years.

Instead, the few families living in General Santos and Koronadal City will come together to hold a mass, she said.

"It will be simple, but at least we will be together to commemorate the 11th anniversary [of the massacre]," she added.

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