RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Layman’s guide to understanding the Ampatuan Massacre verdict (9): Why it can happen again

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(Last of 9 parts)

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 07 March) — In a statement issued after the Ampatuan verdict was announced, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) welcomed the conviction of key Ampatuan clan members and several others for the massacre, describing the court decision as a  monumental step in the unfinished fight for justice. NUJP observed that The decision penned by Judge Reyes-Solis is not yet final until all the appeals, including to the Supreme Court, are decided. Yet, according to NUJP.

“But this is a significant and landmark step in proving the guilt of the Ampatuan clan members and their minions in the massacre, the worst single attack against journalists in the world and the worst single election-related violence in the country.

We laud the families of the 58 victims for never giving up and succumbing to threats, bribes and harassment and instead stood their ground in fighting for justice for their loved ones.

Photo of the massacre site with the abandoned backhoe at Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan, Maguindanao afternoon of 23 November 2009. Photo from the briefing of the 601st Infantry Brigade to Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales on 24 November 2009.

The convictions and indemnification can never bring back the lives of the victims and erase the pain of the families who lost their loved ones.

But these, in some way, alleviate the suffering that they have endured for the past 10 years.”

The NUJP however lamented that 55 of the accused including some key Ampatuan clan members were acquitted, that at least 80 of those accused also remain at large. And that the 58th victim, Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay Jr., was not given justice.

In its report,  Human Rights Watch (HRW) explains why the Maguindanao massacre, while an aberration for its brutality, can and will be repeated. It says in the November 2010 report:

“The private army of the Ampatuan family may be among the most abusive in the Philippines, but it is just one among many. More than 100 private armies, large and small, are estimated to be operating throughout the Philippines, primarily but not exclusively in rural areas, and often but not always where there is an active insurgency. The level of direct government support for these militias varies, but if the Ampatuan example is any indication, a history of abuses is no disqualifier. So long as such official support continues, so will these forces and the atrocities for which they have been responsible. The Maguindanao massacre was an aberration only because of how many people died, not because of its cold-blooded brutality, which the government, military, and police has long tolerated, and even fuelled. Instead, the killings were an atrocity waiting to happen.”

As a result,  HRW recommended that: The Philippine government should urgently take measures to end serious human rights violations by “private armies” throughout the country, including the involvement of militias, paramilitary forces, police, and military personnel. It should investigate and prosecute all those responsible.”

Specifically, HRW proposed that the government: (a) Issue an executive order banning all paramilitary and militia forces in the Philippines because of their long and continuing history of serious human rights violations. To accomplish this, systematically disarm all paramilitary and militia forces, end all private funding of such groups, and implement their staged reduction and disbandment; (b) Direct the National Bureau of Investigation to prioritize investigating alleged extrajudicial killings and other serious crimes that may involve government officials, or security and militia forces, particularly if they appear linked to broader criminal activity by local authorities; (c) Take all necessary measures, including reforming the witness protection program, to ensure the safety of survivors of serious crimes, witnesses, and families of victims and witnesses before, during, and after trial; (d) Order an appropriate government agency to investigate whether public funds have been unlawfully used for creating, arming, and supporting militia forces, and prosecute those responsible for doing so; (e) Submit a bill to Congress that prevents local government officials from selecting or dismissing police chiefs in their jurisdiction for private purposes, and discourage nepotism.

Personally, I describe the outcome of the Ampatuan massacre verdict as imperfect justice. We should celebrate a victory against impunity like this but should be mindful of the unfinished work – the arrest and trial of the remaining perpetrators, justice for the 58th victim, holding accountable by some other means those who may have been acquitted, and of course removing the conditions which led to the massacre – that is family dynasties in politics and warlordism, including politicians’ control of state resources and forces. (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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