Today marks the 500th day anniversary of the notorious Ampatuan massacre that claimed 58 lives, including 32 journalists. The massacre has since been referred to as the “single deadliest attack against journalists in the world” and the “deadliest election-related violence in Philippines history”.
On November 23, 2009, 58 individuals were intercepted at Ampatuan, Maguindanao, brought to a hilltop in Sitio Masalay and brutally shot to death by at least eight individuals, all of whom were using high-powered automatic assault weapons. No one of the victims lived to tell their tale, albeit some of those involved in the massacre live until today, ready to give their testimony in the criminal case currently pending against 195 individuals accused of 57 counts of murder pending in Branch 221 of the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. One self-confessed participant, whom we referred to as “Jessie”, lived long enough to tell his tale to the media, but not long enough to repeat his story before a court of law.
Fortunately, at least one eyewitness, Kenny Dalagdag, survives until today, although defense counsels appear hell bent in flushing him out of his safe house under the government’s Witness Protection Program through a writ of mandamus intended purportedly to compel authorities to likewise charge him as a principal for the massacre. As we speak, the Office of the Solicitor General is parrying these efforts by invoking the law: those admitted into the program cannot be charged by prosecutors. More importantly, under the same program, these witnesses cannot be compelled to leave their safe houses save to testify in court for the case for which they were given protection.
So where are we in the prosecution of the country’s worst massacre?
The prosecution has presented close to 35 witnesses, including at least three eyewitnesses, five victims, NBI and police investigators, medico-legal officers and ballisticians. To date, though, the presentation of evidence was primarily in opposition to Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr.’s Petition for Bail, which had been terminated, and is now for presentation of evidence in chief against Unsay and a handful of other accused. Father and son, Andal Sr. and Rizaldy “Zaldy” Ampatuan, have not even been arraigned. Worse, more than half of all accused, including Datu Kanor Ampatuan, nephew of Andal Sr. who allegedly employed the slain witness “Jessie”, is one of those who are still at large.
Worse, it appears from the confluence of events that despite at least three witnesses who testified that the former ARMM Governor “Zaldy” Ampatuan participated in the planning of the massacre, his counsel, Howard Calleja of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, brazenly announced two Saturdays ago that his client would be granted bail by the Court of Appeals. This refers to a pending Petition for Review filed by the former ARRM governor, alleging that Zaldy was wrongfully charged because he was deprived of his statutory right to a preliminary investigation. This announcement came after columnist Ramon Tulfo wrote in his column that P200 million — the same amount offered to former National Economic and Development Authority Secretary General Romulo Neri by then-Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos—is circulating in our courts to free at least one of the detained Ampatuans. Tulfo’s column was followed by an exclusive report by Jomar Canlas, alleging that Zaldy’s Petition in the 11th Division of the Court of Appeals might be decided in his favor since only one justice was against the granting of Zaldy’s Petition to seek his release from detention. What is thus alarming is that in the totality of these reports, Calleja’s brave prediction may not be an empty guess, but a preordained result, which strangely enough, was known only to the accused and his counsel.
To add to the victims’ travails, the Anti-Money Laundering Council under the leadership of Bangko Sentral Governor Amando Tetangco has not frozen even a single centavo or even one real estate holding of the Ampatuans, despite the lapse of 500 days since the day of the massacre. This has prompted one of the victims, Editha Tiamzon, to declare that Tetangco is the “protector of the Ampatuan wealth”. It is important that the Ampatuan wealth be frozen for at least one reason mentioned by another victim, Myrna Reblando: “money talks”. Unless the Ampatuan wealth is frozen, it can be used not only for their defense, but also to defeat the wheels of justice. The BSP governor is a perfect example of how loyalists of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are still not only well entrenched, but able to subvert the reform agenda of President Noynoy Aquino. Tetangco is joined in the Monetary Board by his fellow Arroyo loyalists: ex-spokesman Ignacio Bunye, ex-Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Favila, and ex-Social Security System Chairman Juanita Amatong.
Finally, a few words about the reported rift between the private and public prosecutors in the Ampatuan massacre case. One, I do not have any conflict with any member of the original prosecution team. It was another private prosecutor who had such differences.
Two, while I had my share of disagreements with the members of the original panel, I have since transcended them in favor of the more pressing chore of achieving justice for the victims of the massacre.
Three, despite all these, I defer to Justice Secretary Leila De Lima’s decision to change he prosecution panel, even if I have reservations that the change may lead to some delays in the prosecution of the massacre. In any case, the good news is that on the 500th day of the massacre, the prosecution of those accused of the perpetration of the crime is right on course, again.