Victims’ lawyer questions release of vehicle evidences in Ampatuan Massacre

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/26 August) – A private prosecutor for the families of several victims in the November 2009 Ampatuan massacre has questioned the release of several police patrol vehicles and passenger vans that were earlier recovered in connection with the gruesome killings.

Lawyer Prima Jesus Quinsayas, counsel for some of the slain journalists in the massacre, said they found out during an ocular inspection here Tuesday of evidences related to the killings that some of the impounded police patrol pick-up vehicles owned by the Maguindanao Provincial Police and the passenger vans that were recovered at the site have been released.

February 23, 2010 lighting of candles after the mass in memory of the Ampatuan Massacre victims and the blessing of vehicles at the evidence yard of the PRO 12 in General Santos City. Photo courtesy of Rowena Paraan/NUJP

The vans that ferried the slain journalists and the police pickups were missing and were reportedly released already. They were supposed to be part of the evidences so we will question this (before the court)” she said.

The vehicles, along with the infamous backhoe owned by the Maguindanao government, were kept in the “evidence yard” of the Police Regional Office 12 headquarters in Barangay Tambler here.

Quinsayas was among the prosecutors and personnel from the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 who conducted an ocular visit and inspection of various evidences related to the massacre.

“We will follow-up the paper trail from the time these vehicles were recovered and up to the time that they were released,” the lawyer told reporters.

February 23, 2010 blessing of the vehicles and mass to commemorate the third month since the massacre. Photo courtesy of Rowena Paraan/NUJP

Police Officer 1 Elliver Cablitas, husband of slain journalist Maritess, said they could not understand why the vehicles were released by the police custodians.

“They were part of the evidences so they should not have been released,” he said.

Among the evidences stored at the PRO-12 compound were a cache assorted high-powered firearms and ammunition, several improvised armored vehicles and the Maguindanao-owned backhoe excavator which was recovered at the massacre site in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. The backhoe was reported to have been used in burying some of the victims. At least 58 persons were killed, 32 of them from the media, in what has come to be known as the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009.

A group of armed men allegedly led by then Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr. allegedly held and later killed members of the family of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, their lawyers and the media workers who were on their way to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for Maguindanao governor at the Commission on Elections provincial office in Shariff Aguak town, the next town after Ampatuan.

Ampatuan, Jr. wanted to run for governor unopposed. His father, Andal, Sr., had served as governor from 2001 to 2009. Mangudadatu won the gubernatorial race in May against Ampatuan Sr.’s candidate, Datu Obra Sinsuat. Ampatuan Sr., lost the vice gubernatorial post to Ismael “Dustin” Mastura.

Last Monday, the Region 12 police crime laboratory subjected to ballistic tests the recovered K3 or Minimi-type light machine gun that was allegedly used by the principal suspect, Andal Ampatuan, Jr. during the massacre.

The vans and a Ssangyong vehicle at the evidence yard during the blessing of the vehicles and a mass in memory of the Ampatuan Massacre victims on February 23, 2010. Photo courtesy of Rowena Paraan/NUJP

Chief Supt. Felicisimo Khu, Region 12 police director, admitted that they released the police patrol cars and the passenger vans but stressed that they were done through proper procedure.

He said the release of the police patrol pickups were based on a directive from the Philippine National Police (PNP) national directorate.

“They were released on orders from Camp Crame due to the lack of available police vehicles in the area during the May elections,” Khu said.

The police official said they were forced to release the five passenger vans following a court order secured by the family of Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, whose wife Genalyn was among those killed in the massacre.

“The court granted their request to have these vehicles released to a transport cooperative that owns them. The cooperative cited then that they were already incurring huge losses due to the impounding of the vans,” Khu said.

Off limits on February 23, 2010. But some vehicles at the evidence yard have been released. Photo courtesy of Rowena Paraan/NUJP

Nena Santos, lawyer of the Mangudadatus, told MindaNews Thursday that the release of the vehicles to the owners does not matter because these have been identified and ownership has been determined.

Santos said they sought a court order on May 10 for the release of the three vans the Mangudadatus hired and the other van used by Mangudadatu’s wife, sisters and other relatives, owned by Assemblyman Toy Mangudadatu.

The convoy from Buluan town consisted of six vehicles and 52 persons. Six other passengers in two vehicles that happened to pass the highway at the wrong time were also herded along with the convoy members 3.5 kilometers uphill from the highway.

Of the total eight vehicles herded into Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, three were crushed and buried along with some of the dead – the white L-300 FB vehicle of the UNTV, the red Toyota Vios owned by the Tacurong City government and the blue Toyota Tamaraw FX owned by Anthony Ridao. The Vios and Tamaraw FX occupants just happened to pass at the wrong time.

The rest — a Ssangyong 4-wheel drive owned by one of the media workers; four Toyota Grandia vans, three of them owned by the Venus Transport Cooperative and one by Assemblyman Mangudadatu – were left a few meters away from the mass gravesites, some of the bodies still inside the vehicles.

The vans and police vehicles brought to the “evidence yard” of the Police Regional Office in Barangay Tambler, General Santos City were blessed during a mass for the victims at the tree-shaded portion near the yard, on February 23, 2010, the fourth month since the massacre.

Grace, a relative of one of the victims, said the mass, along with the blessing of the vehicles, was held there upon the request of the policemen guarding the yard who reported having heard strange sounds and movements, allegedly coming from the vehicles, usually around midnight.

The February 23 mass was officiated by Fr. Angel Buenavides, also chair of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas, General Santos City-Sarangani chapter, and police inspector Apolinario Davis Abing Jr., the regional police’s chaplain.

Buenavides said the vehicles, “abused by deliberate human intention” should “remind us of what evil can do”

“Let us ask for the grace of forgiveness and also the grace to forgive,” he said, but quickly added, “let us always remember that forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness.” (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews with a report from Carolyn O. Arguillas)