It happened last Thursday, the day when this column is regularly published. The prosecution has at least four witnesses ready, three of whom we were going to present as private prosecutors. While Cipriana Gatchalian, wife of slain journalists Santos “Jun” Gatchalian was scheduled to testify, Joseph Jubelag was not. Joseph could have been the 33rd journalist victim of the Ampatuan massacre had he pushed through with his scheduled coverage of Esmael Mangudadatu’s filing of his certificate of candidacy for governor of Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. Fortunately for him, he had previously written critical articles of the Ampatuan, specifically what he described as their ill-gotten wealth, and for which he received death threats.
He decided thus not to go with the doomed convoy at the very last minute. In fact, he had already filled his Mitsubishi Lancer with gas, together with the other vehicles of the convoy, when suffering from goose bumps, he decided to heed the call of nature and decided to return to the pension house where he and eleven other journalists spent the night of November 22, 2009. There, he was told by the first desk clerk that two seemingly Muslim men where inquiring about the identities of the journalists that stayed there the night before. He thought this to be strange and took this is an omen of the evil that was to happen.
Jubelag then called his close friend, Alejandro “Bong” Reblando to say that he was not joining the coverage. Bong understood and agreed to meet him at the residence of now Governor Esmael Mangudadatu in Buluan after the filing for a scheduled press conference. Bong would not make it back to Buluan, as together with 57 other victims, he would be brutally murdered in Sharif Aguak, Maguindanao.
Among those to be charged with murder for the massacre would be Andal Ampatuan Sr and his sons, Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr, Zaldy, Sajib and Akmad.
Joseph did take the witness stand last Thursday but did not have to testify. After initial protests from defense counsels that he was not in the list of witnesses to be presented, they nonetheless agreed to stipulate that Joseph could identify all 32 journalists who joined the Mangudadatu convoy on November 23, 2009. Joseph was also supposed to identify a blood-stained list of journalists who joined the convoy. In the absence of the original that was still in the possession of police authorities, Joseph could not identify the list. There also was no further reason for him to do so given the stipulation.
In any case, while Joseph was scheduled to be presented in the morning last Thursday, the defense objected. Judge Jocelyn Reyes, in order to give all defense counsels, lawyer Sigrid Fortun in particular, an opportunity to hear his testimony, decided to postpone Joseph’s testimony to 1:30 in the afternoon of the said date. Hearing was thus adjourned at an unusually early time of 11 AM.
I was already in my vehicle en route to lunch when victim Gemma Oquendo knocked at my vehicle’s window to say that Bureau of Jail Management and Penology chief Rosendo Dial had allowed the victims to conduct a surprise visit to the Ampatuan detention facility. This consent was apparently broadcasted on national radio. Excitedly, we rushed back into the BJPM compound and proceeded to the office of the then warden, Glennford Valdepenas. We waited for almost an hour before we realized that the former warden would not bother to even face us. What made matters worse was that as we were patiently waiting outside the warden’s office, an Ampatuan lawyer entered the office so casually, it was as if he were part of the BJMP. This riled the victims then present, including Gov. Toto, and almost triggered a physical encounter between the victims, the Ampatuan lawyer, and the staff of the former warden.
As we left the warden’s office, another group of victims proceeded to the DILG to reiterate their request for a surprise visit to the Ampatuans. Apparently, Director Dial again agreed. But by the time this was relayed to me at about 5 PM of the same day, I thought that the visit would already be useless. If it were true that the Ampatuans are being given very-important-prisoner treatment, surely, I thought, the six hours that had already expired since we originally sought to visit their detention facility would be more than sufficient time to get rid of evidence of this VIP treatment. I was simply unwilling to be a deodorizer. Full stop.
The good news is that Secretary Jesse Robredo lived up to his Magsaysay Award and has relieved Valdepenas from his post. He apparently is also making more surprise visits to Bicutan in an effort to rid the Ampatuans of VIP treatment. Asked for my comments today about what I thought of these initiatives, I said these were certainly welcome even if Robredo would have to make more of these visits to ensure that the Ampatuans are treated no differently from ordinary detention prisoners. I also thought that the DILG would need a very deep bench for the post of warden of the Quezon City Annex detention facility in Bicutan as I’m sure many more will succumb to temptations.
Strangely, the Ampatuan lawyer Sigrid Fortun has himself admitted the existence of VIP treatment when he acknowledged on national television that his clients did have their food delivered (some will say catered) to them regularly. The Ampatuan legal team has hence admitted what the victims have suspected all along: that the Ampatuans are in fact accorded special treatment.
Meanwhile, none of the victims, no one from the media, nor anyone from the general public has seen any of the Ampatuans as they are allegedly detained in Bicutan. The last that we saw Andal Sr, for instance, was when he was about to take a luxury SUV on his way to a medical examination. All that the Filipino people have by way of guarantee that the Ampatuans are in fact detained in Bicutan is the word of Secretary Robredo. And yes, let’s not even talk about VIP treatment when we are not even sure where they are.