The Ampatuan massacre trial: Still moving slowly

VectorLogo_3_singleThe trial of the accused in the case of the Ampatuan Massacre moved slowly into its sixth year in 2015. The pace in the quest for justice of the killing of 58 persons including 32 media workersin the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao provincespeaks eloquently of the profound challenge of impunity in the killing of journalists in the Philippines.

On trial are no less than 197 accused, including all police and military officers who had followed the orders to block the convoy of the family of Esmael Mangudadatu.

Mangudadatu’s wife was filing his certificate of candidacy for governor on 23 November 2009. The convoy included other family members andpolitical supporters, and had enlisted support from the media as a means to safeguard their passage.

They, along with several persons who just happened to pass by when the convoy was flagged down, were taken to an isolated hillside where they were shot and buried in a shallow mass grave.

The primary accused include 15 family members of the Ampatuan, charged with 58 counts of murder.

The Philippines Supreme Court had taken unprecedented interventions to speed up proceedings of the case which has drawn worldwide attention on the murders of journalists.

On December 10, 2013 the Supreme Court released a set of guidelines allowing, among others, Quezon City Regional Trial Court judge Jocelyn Reyes to resolve pending motions before her court despite ongoing appeals filed by the defense in higher courts. An assisting judge was also assigned “to handle the conduct of all non-trial incidents in the (Ampatuan) massacre cases, such as arraignments and pre-trials, as well as to decide incidents and motions that are not intrinsic to the merits of the cases.”

These measures may have lightened the load of the presiding judge, but the trial’s pace seems not to have hastened toward a resolution in the foreseeable feature.

Bail Rejected

The trial has yet to decide the question of bail for some of the accused who filed petitions for their temporary liberty. In the Philippines, rejecting bail petitions require the presentation of strong evidence of guilt, which usually calls for a lengthy process when the prosecution may have to provide primary evidence and witnesses.

The court had earlier denied the petitions for bail by other members of the Ampatuan family who allegedly led the planning and execution of worst single attack on the press.

After finding strong evidence of guilt against them, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes denied in September the petitions of former ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan, Akmad Tato Ampatuan, Anwar Ampatuan Jr., and Andal Ampatuan Sr.

In denying the bail petitions filed by Zaldy Ampatuan, Judge Solis-Reyes said that “based on the proofs so far presented, there are clear, strong, and convincing pieces of evidence, which tend to exclude all reasonable probability of any other conclusion, that the accused is deeply involved in the purported planning of the crimes.”

The court took into account the testimonies of witnesses who had positively identified Zaldy Ampatuan as a participant in planning the November 23 massacre. According to the 27-page decision, Zaldy Ampatuan “allegedly figured by being assigned in Metro Manila, by volunteering firearms, and by giving an advice to be cautious about the actions of the group in pursuing their plans.”

“In the ordinary context these words heard from the accused would show his agreement and unity with the plans discussed during the meetings. Beyond agreement, the accused gave moving utterances that elicited emotional responses and further actions from the group,” said the court.

The court started hearing the bail petition of Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. as early as 5 January 2010, during the first ever hearing held in connection to the Massacre.

According to Nena Santos, lawyer of the Mangudadatu family and other victims, the court had given Unsay until October 2015 to conclude his presentation of evidence in support of his bail petition and rebutting the prosecution.

Bail accepted

Earlier in March however, the court has ordered the immediate release of primary suspect Sajid Ampatuan after posting the required P11.6-million (approximately USD 260,000) bail bond.

In a 9 March 2015 order, Branch 221 judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City ordered the immediate release of Sajid Islam Ampatuan, a son of Ampatuan family patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr. and the OIC-governor of the province of Maguindanao at the time of the planning of the massacre.

The order came two months after the court granted Sajid Islam’s petition for bail last 9 January 2015. It said that there was no strong evidence of guilt and that there was no showing that Sajid Islam played an active role in the November 2009 meetings during which the blockade and murders were planned.

The court said that the prosecution failed to establish strong evidence that would warrant Sajid’s continued detention while trial is ongoing. The judge said that the suspect was only present in the meetings but did not participate in alleged discussions that led to the massacre.

The decision to temporarily free Sajid Ampatuan follows an earlier decision by the court to allow 41 policemen charged to post bail amounting to the same amount as what Sajid paid, and which corresponds to P200,000 (approximately USD 4,500) for each of the 58 counts of murder.

Sajid is the first suspect known to have been able to post the required bail amount.

Patriarch dies

The clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr. died of liver failure in July 2015 at a hospital in Quezon City. Andal Sr. was 74.

According to the hospital discharge summary report, Andal Sr. died at 10:02 p.m. on 17 July despite efforts to revive him. He had been in the hospital since June 2015 after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

Andal Sr. allegedly led the planning and execution of the massacre.

Former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told reporters that because of his death the Department of Justice will concentrate on the civil liabilities of Andal Sr. A GMA News Online report on July 18 this year quoted De Lima: “(t)he trial continues with respect to the other accused. Datu Andal Sr.’s death extinguishes his criminal liability but not his civil liability for the massacre.”

Based on the Revised Penal Code and the Philippines’ Rules on Criminal Procedure, the death of an accused after arraignment and before final judgment will extinguish criminal liability and civil liability arising from the crime. But civil liability may be charged against the estate of the deceased accused if a separate civil action has been instituted or if it is based on other causes of action.

6th year

To observe the sixth anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre this November, member organizations of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) invited representatives of the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Department of Justice (DOJ),  and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to a forum to discuss what could be done to address the problem of impunity in the cases of violence against journalists.

FFFJ had hoped that these agencies could still commit to doing something about the killing of journalists before the end of the term of President Benigno Aquino III in May 2016. No official could confirm their attendance.

Despite the limited time available,  however, FFFJ holds that tcoordinated and resolute action of the PNP, the DILG and the DOJ can still take the steps necessary during the next seven months to address both the slow pace of the trial as well to as to prevent further attacks against the press.

Killings in 2015

Another journalist, a broadcaster, was killed only last October 31 in Metro Manila, raising the number of journalists killed during the Aquino III administration to 29, or an average of six every year of this administration.

The four journalists killed in the line of duty this year were:

1. Gregorio “Loloy” Ybañez: On August 18, Ybañez had just alighted from his motorcycle and was about to enter his house when he was shot at from a gray Honda parked only a few meters away. Ybañez sustained several serious wounds and was rushed to the hospital where he underwent surgery. He died the following day.

Ybañez wrote for “Tingug sa Katilingban (Voice of the Masses).” He was president of the Davao del Norte Press and Radio-TV Club (DNPRC) and the publisher and editor of the Kabuhayan News Services which had recently stopped publication. Aside from his work in media, Ybañez was also a director of the Davao del Norte Electric Cooperative (DANECO).

2. Teodoro Escanilla: Two unidentified gunmen shot dead dzMS-AM Sorsogon blocktimer Teodoro “Tio Todoy” Escanilla at the door of his home in Barcelona, Sorsogon. The alleged gunmen were heard talking to Escanilla before the killing happened.

Escanilla anchored the program Pamana ng Lahi (A Nation’s Legacy) every Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. He was also chair of the local Anak Pawis (Children of Labor) labor organization and spokesperson of the human rights group Karapatan (Right) in Sorsogon.

3. Cosme Maestrado: Cosme Maestrado was shot by four unidentified men in front of a shopping center in Ozamiz City last August 27. Maestrado sustained three gunshot wounds in the head. He was rushed to Medina General Hospital but was declared dead on arrival.

Maestrado was an anchor of dxOC, an affiliate station of dzXL Radio Mindanao Network.

4. Jose Bernardo: dwIZ volunteer reporter Jose Bernardo was killed by an unidentified assailant in front of a fast food restaurant in Brgy. Kaligayahan, Quezon City, Metro Manila last October 31.

Before working as a dwIZ volunteer, Bernardo was a reporter of the blocktime program “Walang Personalan, Trabaho Lang” (Nothing Personal, It’s Just Business) in dwBL hosted by radio blocktimer Ronald Pula.