RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Layman’s guide to understanding the Ampatuan Massacre verdict (1st of a series)

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 20 January) — With this column, I start a series of around a dozen articles on the Ampatuan Massacre verdict, promulgated last month, on 19 December 2019. My goal is to laymanize the 761-page decision by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, highlighting her findings of facts, why she convicted some accused and acquitted others, and how she reached those findings using the basic principles of criminal law like the doctrine on conspiracy. I will reflect the gaps in the decision, for example in the acquittal of the accused with respect to the 58th victim Reynaldo Momay, and how to close them.

I will end the series with my thoughts on impunity and political dynasties and why these political realities must be addressed if the Ampatuan Massacre does not happen again. But before going to the events of the morning of November 23, 2009 and what Judge Solis-Reyes established beyond reasonable doubt, some background on the Ampatuan family is helpful.

Bodies exhumed from the mass graves at the massacre site in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan, Maguindanao in this photo taken on 25 November 2009. The remains of Reynaldo Momay, photographer at the Midland Review in Tacurong City, were never found, but for his dentures at the massacre site. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

As with most political dynasties in the country, the Ampatuans draw their power from “guns, goons and gold.” With an armory comparable to that of a small army and close friendship with the tenants in Malacanang, the Ampatuans had almost total control of Maguindanao for many years. During their heyday, the Ampatuans wielded almost absolute power in the province to such an extent that some say they even had the power of life and death over their constituencies. They also controlled the police, the judiciary and the local election commission, and possessed a variety of high-powered weapons including mortars, rocket launchers and assault rifles. Because they could guarantee electoral victory to whomsoever they favor, local and national politicos would earnestly seek their good graces during elections. In the 2007 midterm senatorial elections for example, Maguindanao returned a 12-0 win for President Arroyo’s senate slate, Team Unity.

The Ampatuan clan has a long history in Maguindanao, tracing their roots to Shariff Aguak, one of the first Muslim preachers in the region. At first the Ampatuans were not as prominent as they are today. They were influential traders but their social status was in no way comparable to “datus” or rulers. In the mid-1970s however, President Marcos appointed Andal Ampatuan Sr., the patriarch, mayor and officer-in-charge of Maganoy (now Shariff Aguak) in an attempt to put in place allies to stamp out Muslim separatists in the region. Andal Sr. served as mayor of Shariff Aguak for 10 years.

With the outbreak of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, Cory Aquino replaced every elected official with officers-in-charge, one of whom was Andal Sr.

In 2001, Andal Sr. was elected governor of Maguindanao. The family gained national prominence in 2001 when they became close allies of then President Gloria Arroyo. Supposedly in exchange for the family’s open support to her presidential bid, Arroyo showered Maguindanao with funds during her administration. There are allegations, which Arroyo and the Ampatuans deny, that the latter rigged the 2004 elections to ensure that Mrs. Arroyo win convincingly against her closest rival popular actor Fernando Poe, Jr. In 2006, Executive Order 545 was issued by Mrs. Arroyo allowing local officials, including the Ampatuans, to deploy local militia to aid the military in the fight against Communist insurgents and terror groups. Interestingly, the E.O. was issued shortly after the assassination attempt against Andal Sr. Needless to say, this local civilian militia also served as private army of the clan.

At the height of their power, the Ampatuans had a virtual control of most municipalities in Maguindanao with Andal Sr. serving governor, his son Zaldy as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM and Andal Jr., the prime massacre suspect in the Maguindanao massacre, as mayor of Datu Unsay. At the time of the massacre in November 2009, 10 of Maguindanao’s 34 municipalities were run by Ampatuans, their relatives and proxies.

Aside from Andal Ampatuan Sr., 74, who died in 2015 of liver cancer, several other members of the clan were charged with multiple mass murder, including brothers Datu Andal Jr., Zaldy, and Anwar Sr, and Anwar’s sons Anwar Jr., and Anwar Sajid.

Sajid Islam Ampatuan, youngest brother of the Datu Andal and Zaldy Ampatuan, was acquitted. Aside from Datu Andal Unsay, 27 other members of his family have been charged in connection with the killings. With Andal Sr., Datu Andal Unsay Jr., the 8th child of the patriarch, was the one said to have orchestrated the worst case of election-related violence in the country’s history.

But despite the notoriety of the clan, it is not right to condemn all members of the Ampatuan family as evil or to pretend that they are the only political dynasty in this country. In this regard, Judge Solis-Reyes was rightly scrupulous and did not get carried away by the reputation of the Ampatuans and decided the case on its merits. (To be continued)

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio “Tony” La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He teaches Constitutional law in several schools in Manila and Mindanao)


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