COMMENT: Ampatuan Massacre: Much Spoken, Yet

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GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/30 Nov)– Much has been spoken about the Ampatuan Massacre. Yet, there are more to be spoken including some matters that today are unspeakable. Perhaps, someday when the wounds heal, the pains subside and the enmities vanish, these can be exhumed without tarnishing the memories of the dead and reviving the pains and anger of the living.

Parenthetically, the event should go down in history as “Masalay Massacre,” named after the site of the event. Besides the fact that this has been how similar events way back to ancient history had been known, “Ampatuan Massacre” will tend to perpetuate the stigma on and enmity against the “Ampatuan clan,” especially the name. This will be unfair to the future generations of the Ampatuans.

The cry is for justice. The cry cannot be denied. Let the Ampatuans found guilty suffer. But spare from wrath the innocent and the future Ampatuans. That, too, is the cry – now stifled — for unsullied justice.

Challenge for Reflection

To some extent, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno stated a challenge in her speech before the Journalism Asia Forum, international conference organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), in Quezon City last November 23, coinciding with the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 23, 2014: SC has taken ‘extraordinary’ steps for speedy Maguindanao massacre trial — Sereno)

Noting and clarifying the conference theme – impunity, “the failure to punish crime which engenders more crime,” – she said that combating impunity should be seen as a “shared burden” of the Philippine courts and media and she emphasized the need “to work together, not against each other.”

She delineated this shared burden: “By shining a light in the areas that a culture of impunity keeps dark, the media plays a crucial role in stopping impunity and ensuring accountability. On the other hand, the courts ensure that the media may shine a light, where and when needed, by protecting the crucial freedoms that ensure independence of the press. This is our common cause, our shared burden, our one hope.”

Let this engender reflections on “the much that has been spoken” and “the unspoken that may be spoken at the ripe time.”

Tribute and Laments

Fifty-eight perished in the massacre. They are martyrs. “Martyrs to the freedom of the press” is the tribute distinguishing the 32 media people from the other victims. What did the 26 others die for? Were they, too, martyrs?

The heirs of the victims, the widows and children especially, are martyrs too. They lament the loss of their loved ones and of their life-support. Besides suffering from trauma, some of the children have stopped schooling. They accuse the government of indifference to their plight.

They decry the alleged attempts of the accused to buy them out of the case. But they want justice not money of the Ampatuans. The most rabid and vocal complainants have been allegedly threatened with death for refusing to be silenced with money. Myrna Reblando, the widow of Manila Bulletin correspondent Alejandro “Bong” Reblando has sought refuge in Hongkong together with her daughter.

They decry the slowness in meting out justice. The Philippines is notorious for slowness in resolving criminal cases – not only more than five years but a decade or more. But the Ampatuan massacre is different. A celebrated case, considered the most dastardly assault against human rights and press freedom in the Philippines, demands special prosecution.

Much Done, Not Enough

Concering the end of hte Ampatuan massacre trial that many have been eager to know, Justice Sereno, when asked at the JAP conference for the end of the case, said: “The only answer I can tell you with all sincerity is that the judiciary is doing its best, the Supreme Court is exercising its power in a way it has never done before, to bring a speedy end to the long anguished wait, said Justice Sereno at the Journalism Asia Forum attended by delegates from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX).

What has been done to ensure a speedy trial? She said: “In 2013, the Supreme court came up with new guidelines to speed up the disposition of the Maguindanao trial. The guidelines apply only to this one case. This is extraordinary. The Supreme Court has never done this before.”

What is extraordinary in the new guidelines? She said that since the trial began on January 5, 2010, it “has proceeded nonstop,” with no breaks except for official holidays. Two days a week have been devoted to evidentiary hearings, one day a week for hearing motions. The judge handling the case, Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221, has been “focused only on this case, having been relieved of all other duties.” Three assisting judges have been assigned to Reyes’ court.

What has been accomplished in four years and eleven months? Sereno cited data to explain in part the long trial. The transcripts of the hearings so far have reached 70 volumes and the records for the case 77 volumes. Sereno ran down the figures: 58 victims; 197 originally accused and 111 arraigned; 70 bail petitions, 42 of which have already been resolved, with 166 witnesses having testified.

Much has been done – the new Supreme Court guidelines and the accomplishment of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 under Judge Solis-Reyes. But only those much can be done under the Philippine justice or judicial system. All the factors that have slowed the trial are within the Rules of Court, the Constitution particularly the Bills of Right, and pertinent Philippine Laws. The counsels of prosecution and defense see the weakness and are clamoring for change (Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 23, 2014: State of the Maguindanao massacre trial exposes weaknesses in judicial system).

Certainly, there’s a need to revise the system for expeditious disposal of criminal cases. For instance, in a recent Associated Press report published in The Philippine Star, November 28, an Indonesian and two Filipinos identified as Abu Sayaff were found guilty only last November 27 by Judge Leili Cruz-Suarez, presiding judge of Regional Trial Court of Pasig-Branch 261, for the bombing of Fitmart shopping mall in General Santos City on April 21, 2002. Twelve years to mete out justice!

A Special Court, like a Commission, with Special Rules and Special Guidelines relative to the application of the Constitution and pertinent Philippine Laws should have been created to speed up the Ampatuan massacre case. Is this within the authority of the Supreme Court? Or, is this only within the authority of the President and the Congress?

As water cannot rise above its source, the speed in disposing the Ampatuan massacre case will not be faster that what the system would allow.

Demands

President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III is being pilloried for failing in his promises to give justice to the Ampatuan massacre victims and their heirs. The first was his election campaign promise (Inquirer Mindanao November 23, 2014: Maguindanao massacre anniversary: Aquino reminded of poll promise). Believing and in response, Myrna Reblando, wife of victim Bong Reblando, endorsed Aquino in a video on the eve of the elections.

The second: “We will not rest until justice has been served,” MindaNews (November 22, 2014: 19 months left for PNoy to fulfill vow of justice for Ampatuan Massacre victims) quoted the vow of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III in a four-paragraph statement on the first anniversary of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre — .with still five years and seven months to the end of his term on June 30, 2016 . He has failed to fulfill that vow with only 19 months and a week left of his term.

Not only the President but also Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and his peace adviser, Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles have made similar unfulfilled promises for the Aquino III administration. Having promised, they made the victims’ heirs hope. However, the case is in court. In reality, there’s nothing they can do to hasten the trials unless the President orders the creation of a special court.

The President is also being pressed for demands for compensation. The heirs of the victims are saying that they are hoping the Aquino Government will fulfill their promise. If they have been promised, they have the right to expect – the second time around. A week after the massacre, the Arroyo government, giving priority to the journalists, gave financial assistance from P100,000 to P150, 000 each to their heirs (The Manila Bulletin, November 28, 2009; MindaNews/Mindanao Times, December 1, 2009).

Private Prosecutor Harry Roque, chair of Center Law, said (November 23 Philippine Daily Inquirer) reparations to the victim’s heirs are the obligation of the state under the International Humanitarian Law since the Ampatuans and most of the others involved were with the government when the incident happened. President Aquino III must fulfill this. In November 2010, during a conference in Davao City, he said the compensation would not be less than P10 million for each victim.

The victims’ heirs are entitled to compensation. If the state has wronged its citizens, the government is obliged to award compensation. But it should be asked: Was the crime of the Ampatuans the crime of the state?

The journalists died in the service of then Vice Mayor – now Governor – Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu. Their heirs are entitled to compensation from him. What he has given has never been published. That the heirs have demanded compensation from him has never been reported.

Their heirs are entitled to indemnity from the Ampatuans if they are convicted. It is the court that will determine and order this.

Impunity and Dare

The JAF conference last November 23, by its theme “impunity” and definition, was evidently to tackle the problem of media killing in the Philippines and at the same time to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Amptuan massacre. “Impunity” was specially defined — “the failure to punish crime which engenders more crime”– to suit the issue of media killing. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the word as “freedom from punishment, harm or loss”.

Chief Justice Sereno, in hurling her challenge, was telling the journalists that stopping impunity in media killing is as much the burden of media as that of the Court and, of course, the Government. That is for media people and their organizations to ponder upon. We may comment on that in another article.

Interestingly, “impunity” as Webster’s defines it abetted the Ampatuan massacre. The Ampatuans anticipated the move of Mangudadatu and decided they could use force with impunity (free from punishment) to frustrate him. The journalists knew the danger but they believed they could accompany the Mangudadatus to Shariff Aguak with impunity (free from harm) – that the Ampatuans would not harm Muslim women and media workers.

In his special report (Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 22, 2014: ‘We could’ve been killed together’), Inquirer Correspondent Aquiles Z. Zonio, one of the three spared by Lady Luck, recalled that he, Reblando, two others and a brother of Mangudadatu assessed the security situation before the convoy would leave. The danger was real.

Why did they dare? The tragedy could have been avoided.

Had the journalists decided not to go, the convoy would not have left. It should be asked: Do journalists have guidelines relative to dangerous coverages and their relationship with politicians? If there are, the journalists ignored these to cast their lot with Mangudadatu.

Their intention must be noble. Their only fault was in miscalculating their impunity and ignoring Prudence’s warning: If man dares, he invites danger and risk – like the adage, “He who plays with fire can get burnt.”  “Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at patpdiazgsc@yahoo.com.)

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