De Lima: "What is at trial are not just the accused but our whole government system"

MASSACRE SITE,  Ampatuan, Maguindanao (MindaNews/23 November) — Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assured residents of Maguindanao thatthey have government’s commitment “to do all that we can” to convince the Supreme Court to allow live coverage of the trial” of  the perpetrators of the now year-old Ampatuan Massacre, because “what is at trial are not just the accused, but our whole government system.”

“Until and unless justice has truly been done in this case, none of us could truly claim that the Filipino people have managed to reclaim their humanity,” said De Lima, who recalls having been to the site afew days after the massacre, in the company of forensics experts one of whom said the place reminded him of Rwanda.

The battle to bring those responsible for this “horror of horrors” is the quest of the entire Filipino people, she said, adding, “we have their  (victims’) blood in our collective hands.”

Before delivering her speech, De Lima read President Aquino’s four-paragraph statement. The President noted that the resolution of the multiple murder cases is the “litmus test of our justice system.”

“We will not rest until justice has been served,” Aquino said.

De Lima and Secretary Teresita “Ging” Deles, the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, visited the massacre site up here in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town, as did an estimated 3,000 persons who traveled by car, truck or on foot, to attend the commemoration of the first anniversary of the November 23, 2009 massacre, some 3.5 kilometers from the national highway.

Fifty-eight persons were killed, 32 of them from the media, when armed men reportedly led by then Datu Unsay mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan,  Jr., flagged down the convoy of six vehicles from the camp of then vice mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu (now Maguindanao governor) , along the highway, as they were on their way to the next town, Shariff Aguak, to file the latter’s certificate of candidacy for governor. There were 53 of them in the convoy but five other persons in two vehicles that

happened to pass at the wrong time, were stopped at gunpoint and diverted towards Masalay, at the foothills of Daguma Range.

Andal Jr., intended to run for governor unopposed, as his father, three-term governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., did, in 2007.

No one would have known about the dastardly act if the soldiers and a helicopter owned by the Mangudadatus reached the place at around 3 p.m. By then, some of the bodies and vehicles had been buried. The first day body count was shocking. The death toll rose by the day until the diggings ended on the third day.

De Lima said that after the exact magnitude of the atrocities was finally discovered, “we, Filipinos, realized that we just woke up to a world that will never be the same again.  Not for the families who lost loved ones on that infamous day, and certainly not for the rest of the Filipino people who were just treated to a shameless display of pure, unadulterated evil.”

She acknowledged the personal loss and sorrow of the families of the victims and the communal loss of the nation. “That day marked, not just the loss of innocence but, sadly, the loss of humanity.”

She said she was affected deeply and will never forget what one of the foreign forensics experts deputized by the Commission on Human Rights, which she then headed, about how the place reminded him of Rwanda.

“To us human rights advocates, that comment has a distinct meaning because the Rwanda genocide is the post-world war benchmark for the most heinous of politically motivated mass murders, perhaps second only to the Holocaust in terms of modern history,” said De Lima.

Returning to the area a year later as Justice Secretary, De Lima acknowledged the public’s dissatisfaction with the slow progress of the case but assured them that “everything is being done to ensure that this case is handled properly.”

“Magtiwala po kayo na maigi naming babantayan ang takbo ng kasong ito lalo na anumang pagtatangka na patagalin ito, kasama na ang anumang tangkang guluhin at takutin ang mga taong mahahalaga para sa tagumpay ng prosekusyon” (Rest assured that we will guard this against attempts to delay as well as attempts to sow terror and fear on the witnesses who are vital to success of the prosecution).

She said the Department of Justice will do its best to “fight for your right to witness the proceedings in the case” pending before the Regional Trial Court in Quezon City. “We all need closure. You, Maguindanaons, perhaps more than anyone. We understand that for there to be true and satisfying resolution you must see justice done every step of the way.”

De Lima spoke from a newly-constructed shed with galvanized iron roofing on a hill overlooking the three mass gravesites and a newly-erected concrete marker engraved with the victims’ names.

The sound system was defective and De Lima’s assurances could hardly be heard from the gravesites where hundreds,  among them families of the victims who were unable to navigate their way to the shed, and delegations from the neighboring Cotabatos, as well as those from the Davao City-based Alliance Against Impunity in Mindanao, gathered, to offer flowers and candles at the gravesites.

Fifty-eight balloons were later released during the Interfaith Liturgy by the gravesites.

The marker, shaped like a tablet on a concrete wall and painted in white,  requires major corrections as there were misspelled names or missing names. For example, the marker listed “Mr. and Mrs.  Lechonito” without the couple’s first names and the spelling of the family name lacked one letter. The victims were actually Eduardo Lechonsito and his wife Cecille. They were two of five persons who were not part of the convoy but passed the highway at the wrong time. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)