Witness Protection Key to Fighting Impunity

Secretary of the Department of Justice Leila de Lima listens to questions from SEAPA Fellows.Secretary of the Department of Justice Leila de Lima listens to questions from SEAPA Fellows.
Secretary of the Department of Justice Leila de Lima listens to questions from SEAPA Fellows.
 

MANILA – In June 2010, a newspaper editor was gunned down in his hometown in Digos City in the southern Philippines, an assassination that implicated local politicians. He was one of three journalists killed in that month alone.

In August this year, a principal witness in the Digos murder was himself shot dead by unknown assailants.

“I honestly do not know where this case is leading to now that the vital witness is dead,” the wife of slain journalist Nestor Bedolido told newspaper reporters in Davao last August.

Like dozens of cases of media killings, the still unresolved murder of Bedolido, who had worked for the weekly newspaper Kastigador, and the recent murder of Ritchie Manapol, the eye witness, illustrate the cycle of violence and impunity that have become the hallmarks of the justice system in the country.

Manapol was silenced by bullets that looked meant to stop him from testifying in a case against a former governor and other local politicians. His death came shortly after he dropped out of the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP).

Just days before the 5th anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, a potential prosecution witness in the ongoing trial of the case, was killed in an ambush, while one was wounded in an attack in the provincial capital of Shariff Aguak.

They two men were on their way to meet with lawyers when they were sprayed with bullets, according to Maguindanao Governor Esmael ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu.

“They were our additional vital witnesses to the massacre but unluckily they were executed,” he told reporters. “I see no other reason why they were killed but because of their desire to become state witnesses.”

On November 23, 2009, 58 people travelling in an election convoy were stopped and abducted by about 100 armed men in the outskirts of Ampatuan town in Maguindanao. The men and women, including 32 journalists and media workers, were herded and later slaughtered and buried in mass graves on a grassy hilltop a few kilometers from where they were taken.

The convoy, which included the wife and two sisters of Mangudadatu, then vice-mayor of Buluan town, were bound for the capital to file the politician’s certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao, a post he subsequently won.

About half a dozen witnesses of the massacre, as well as their relatives, have been murdered over a period of time in different places in Maguindanao, a clear warning that the masterminds of the brutal killings have no compunction to eliminate anyone who would implicate them.

One vital witness, who said he drove the gunmen to the massacre site, was found dismembered in one town in Maguindanao in 2012, his chopped-up body placed in a sack.

In a judicial system that relies heavily on witness testimony, the killing of witnesses has become an easy way out for suspects, accused and masterminds, human rights advocates say.

“All those killed were key witnesses in the massacre cases, and the killings show the masterminds – the  Ampatuans – still have power to do whatever they want,” said Prima Quinsayas, legal counsel of the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists, a coalition of six  local media organizations established to provide financial and legal support to families of slain journalists.

The powerful Ampatuan clan lorded over politics in Maguindanao, an impoverished province which is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, for many years. Very wealthy and known to employ private armies, they continue to wield influence even while in detention.

The patriarch Andal Ampatuan, Sr., his sons Andal Jr and Zaldy, are principal suspects in the carnage five years ago that sparked condemnation at home and outside the country. Facing multiple murder charges, they are now detained in jails in the capital, along with dozens of other accused.

Quinsayas, speaking to a group of visiting Southeast Asian journalists, said witnesses are either bribed or killed so stop them from appearing in court.

“The pursuit of justice here is very expensive. You may have to risk your life when you deny the bribe offered (by the masterminds) and you want the full justice for crimes you saw.”

Without testimony from vital witnesses, cases could be jeopardized given the poor state of forensics in the country, as the Maguindanao case demonstrates.

“You can’t imagine how weak the forensic investigation and evidence are. Look, the police used backhoes to recover the dead bodies from the massacre site,” said Quinsayas, who is also a private prosecutor representing many of the victims’ families.

In General Santos city in Mindanao, inside the compound that houses the regional police headquarters, sit vehicles which police say will be used as evidence in the case.

Enclosed only by a metal fence, the vehicles are exposed to all the elements. The pieces of evidence include crumpled vans that carried the victims who were executed and buried in mass graves, as well as military-type vehicles which carried the armed men who stopped the convoy and later killed the victims.

Unresolved murders piling up

The November 23, 2009 slaughter of 58 people was the bloodiest election-related incident in the Philippines and the single deadliest attack on media in the world, reinforcing the country’s reputation as one of the most dangerous places for journalists, according to the international media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The cases of the media personnel brutally killed in the Maguindanao massacre have yet to be resolved despite pressure from national and international human rights groups and press freedom advocates.

But so have the other cases of journalist killings way before the infamous incident five years ago.

According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), which monitors media killings in the country,  more than 200 Filipino journalists have been assassinated across the country since 1986, when democracy was restored, most of them killed in the line of duty.

Of these numbers, only 14 cases have convictions, it said, adding that mere gunmen have faced justice and no mastermind has ever been convicted.

CMFR records also show that 24 journalists have been killed since 2010, when Benigno Aquino became president.

Rights defenders have criticized the slow pace of justice in the country, which, coupled with inefficient criminal investigation and poor witness solicitation and protection, has fanned the culture of impunity.

As a result of weak forensic investigation, the police sometimes present fake eyewitnesses, especially in cases where powerful politicians and other influential people are involved, according to the Human Rights Watch representative in the Philippines.

“You can’t count such cases, but for sure there is at least a fake witness if a big person is involved in the case,” said HRW’s Carlos Conde.

One cannot overstate the importance of protecting witnesses in order for cases to prosper and amid the increasing cases of murder among their ranks, it is imperative to secure their safety.

The government has a witness protection program but lawyers say it has some gaps that need to be addressed for it to become an effective instrument against impunity.

In the Philippines, a criminal case takes years, even decades, to resolve because of case backlog, the lack or prosecutors, judges and witnesses.

“In most of the extrajudicial killings, one problem is always the lack of witnesses or the lack of willing and available witnesses,” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima concedes. “In most cases, there are witnesses, but some are simply too scared to cooperate.”

Atty. Jose M. Diokno, Dean of the De La Salle University College of Law, agrees. The slow pace of justice makes people think twice before offering themselves as witnesses to crimes.

“Some cases took decades, may be 20 or 25 years to be solved,” he said in an interview.

The longer a case drags, he explained, the longer the time a witness spends in ‘virtual’ prison because he or she loses his or her freedom, especially if one is under the government’s WPP.

In exchange for protection, a witness under the program is required to abide by certain regulations, including staying in a temporary shelter (TS) or safe house under police guard, especially if there is a threat to one’s life.

Stuck in a safe house or be killed outside?

“I want to tell the court all that I know, and still live like a normal person,” declared Lakmudin Saliao, a vital witness in the Ampatuan trial who is enrolled in the WPP of the Department of Justice, but who is now practically in the custody of Governor Mangudadatu in Maguindanao.

He was admitted to the government protection program in July 2010 or eight months after the massacre and turned state witness in the case that is closely being watched.

“I want to get out of the program, but I also fear being killed outside,” said the 36-year-old former aide of Andal Sr, who had grown up like an adopted son of the Ampatuans.

“I feel they would kill me as I know what they had planned and done,” he recounted to this reporter during a visit to a heavily-guarded three-storey concrete building in Shariff Aguak. He was taken there by his police escorts for the interview from a safehouse where he lives with his family.

“I saw and heard Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr. and the Datu Unsay (his father) and his followers. They had a series of meetings on November 17, 18 and 22 on their plan to stop the convoy and kill the people,” he said.

Saliao made the same claim in his testimony at the start of the trial of the massacre in Manila in September 2010.

The family was mad at Mangudadatu, he said in the interview, because their former ally was challenging Andal Ampatuan, Jr for the gubernatorial seat, hence the plot to stop him from filing his candidacy at all costs.

Saliao said he was offered a bribe of up to 10 million pesos by Ampatuan Jr. days after he turned state witness, but he refused it. There are times that he feels that his decision to become a witness made no sense, he admitted to this reporter. He could have taken the bribe, he said.

“I was getting only 8,000 pesos a month from the DOJ until last year, and now 11, 000 pesos a month. How can I support my family? I can’t work, Saliao complained, adding that the financial assistance is enough only for food, but not for his children’s education.

“I am now stuck,” he said.

Saliao’s predicament reflects that of all others whose lives changed after they became witnesses, and underscores the challenges facing the WPP.

Secretary de Lima, a former human rights lawyer, acknowledges the difficulties.

“Witness protection is not an easy matter. It’s very, very sensitive. It’s very delicate and it requires receptive obligation,” she told a group of visiting reporters during an interview in her office in Manila.

“And it’s voluntary. You cannot compel witnesses to be under the WPP. You cannot just put a witness in a safe house because it is not easy. That means being separated from your family, and your community.”

There have been cases of witnesses leaving the program and ending up being killed. Such was the case of Ritchie Manapol, who was said to have refused staying in a temporary shelter, so he was taken out of the WPP.

There are also instances of death while still under the program, according to De Lima. “We have one or two witnesses who had been killed. This (is) because these witnesses violated certain rules. They left (the safehouse) without permission.”

Reforming the WPP

Atty Diokno shared his take on the issue. He said: “The problem with the (WPP) law is that it does not provide any perpetuation of testimony,” under which a witness is allowed to testify ahead of the trial and such evidence preserved.

The witness protection law should allow perpetuation of testimony, he added, so that a witness is allowed to stay in a safehouse for just a limited period even if the case took a long time.

“The budget used to financially support witnesses could be reduced and threats also, if they allows witnesses’ testimony before the court ahead of the trail,” he said.

“In the Philippines, criminal cases take very long to finish. A witness has to wait for the trial (to end) because what happens often is the lawyers of the defense delay the case. They can delay the case up to many years. After several years of delay, the witness cannot live a normal life,” Diokno explained.

“So many of them decide to quit the program, and they end up not testifying at all.”

He added:  “Many of them realize that since the cases take so long, they will have to stay (in temporary shelters) for a very long time.”

“Meanwhile, people who were accused are usually out. They get to go on bail. Sometimes, they are not even charged. So the witnesses are the ones who are in jail, but the accused are free,” said Diokno, urging the government to reform the WPP to make it more effective.

“For me, no witness protection law can be effective unless the mechanism allows the witness testifying ahead of the trial,” he said.

Atty Martin Menez, WPP director agrees reforms can strengthen the program.

Two years ago, according to a news report, he suggested adding specific provisions on change of identity and relocating witnesses. He raised the need for some amendments to the law, it said, after the WPP was blamed for the killing of a key witness in a murder case while under the program.

Defending the program against accusations then, he said the witness who was killed refused to stay in a safe house and had in fact signed waivers to that effect.

“At any given time, we have more than 500 witnesses under our care who are in temporary shelters or safehouses,” Secretary de Lima said.

“When you voluntarily cover yourself under WPP, you have to comply with all your own obligations. You follow the rules and regulations of the program,” she explained, adding that if they refuse to be relocated to a safehouse, “we have to determine the coverage.”

“How can we protect them? How can we secure the witness if they refuse to be in a safehouse? We don’t want to be blamed (if anything happened).”

Litmus test of justice system

Despite criticisms directed at the program, WPP’s Menez is proud of what it has accomplished. Data show that the government had a 96 percent conviction rate in 2012 for the cases that had witness enrolled in the WPP, 87 percent in 2013 and almost 87 percent this year.

 

“If you judge by the conviction rate of such cases, I think you would say the Philippine WPP plays a sustainable and important role,” he said.

Despite the positive news from Menez, what many people are demanding to see is the government’s action in the Maguindanao massacre trial that will demonstrate its resolve to end impunity.

A presidential aide had described it as the trial of the century while Secretary de Lima called it a litmus test of the country’s justice system.

She has promised to secure the conviction of at least one of the principal accused by 2016, or before President  Aquino steps down. “If possible, we would like to see a conviction before 2016,” she said, adding this is the president’s aspiration.

There are 194 accused, 70 of whom filed for bail. The bail hearing is on-going.

Aquino has vowed justice for the victims and their families, hoping for a swift resolution of the cases. But he also acknowledges the magnitude of the trial given the number of accused, whom he said will be accorded due process.

De Lima is still hoping for a conviction for the most guilty by 2016. “Whether or not it will happen, we do not know because it is beyond our control,” she declared.

[This article was produced for the 2014 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. Kyaw Ye Lynn is a Burmese Journalist, working as desk editor for Popular Myanmar News Journal Burma, is one of the 2014 fellows. This year’s theme is Promoting a regional understanding of impunity in journalists killing in the Philippines.]

Click this photo to see all of Kyaw Ye Lynn’s photos for the 2014 SEAPA Fellowship.

Kyaw Ye Lynn's Photos, SEAPA Fellowship 2014