Justice Secretary on Ampatuan Massacre: “Never Again”

TACURONG CITY (MindaNews/24 July) — “Never again.”

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assured families of the victims in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre that justice would prevail and that no such massacre can happen again.

In a meeting with the families of the 58 victims at the Genalin Forest Garden Resort here Saturday to commemorate the 8th month since the massacre, De Lima, who had met with the victims’ families months ago while serving as chair of the Commission on Human Rights, said, “the  clarion call/battlecry is – NEVER AGAIN. Never again should our people be traumatized by horrific, bestial events such as what occurred in the hilly area in Barangay Salman, municipality of Ampatuan eight months ago. Never again should the powerful, corrupt and evil be allowed to elude or evade accountability.”

“It has been said that ‘one man with courage makes a majority.’ Many persons through the years have taken up the cause to champion the plight of other people through various rights advocacies. Others whose names are written on their tombstones likewise deserve recognition, like our 57 brethren who gave their lives to this cause. Their families should also share this tribute,” de Lima said.

At the end of her speech, Maria Reynafe Momay-Castillo, daughter of Reynaldo Momay, photographer of Midland Review in Tacurong City whose remains remain missing but for his dentures, broke into tears when she asked de Lima as she was passing towards the dining area, “Ma’am, why only 57? What about my father?”

Only 57 cases of murder have been filed against the suspects led by the Ampatuan clan of Maguindanao since only 57 cadavers had been recovered.

Castillo told MindaNews she  understands legal technicalities but it pains her to listen to people talk about 57 victims only. “You know, this is the seventh time I heard the Secretary say 57 since she became Justice Secretary,” Castillo said.

From candidate to governor

Except for six persons who just happened to pass the highway at the wrong time mid-morning of November 23, the rest of the victims were part of a convoy en route to the provincial office of the Commission on Elections in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, to file the certificate of candidacy of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu who was running for governor.

The convoy was just a few kilometers away from Shariff Aguak, the next town after Ampatuan, when stopped reportedly by about a hundred armed men led by Datu Unsay Mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr.

Ampatuan, Jr. at that time wanted to run for governor. And like his father in 2007, he wanted to run unopposed.

The massacre site was sighted at around 3 p.m. when Ltc Sespene who was “on board personal chopper of Mayor Jong Mangudadatu to conduct reconnaissance in the area spotted five vehicles and landed at the site and linked up with 64IB forces who were in the vicinity,” the November 24 report to Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales and Presidential Adviser on Mindanao Jesus Dureza, said.

By then, the killers, with the help of a backhoe of the provincial government of Maguindanao, had buried 35 of the 58 persons and three of the eight vehicles  in three gravesites.

A state of emergency was declared on November 24. This was elevated to martial law by December 4 but it was lifted on December 12 after the arrest of then OIC Maguindanao governor Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr., ARMM Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, Shariff Aguak Mayor Anwar Ampatuan, former OIC Governor Sajid Ampatuan and OIC Vice Governor Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan, husband of Rebecca, the eldest child of Ampatuan Sr. and Bai Laila Uy Ampatuan.

Still, Ampatuan Sr., ran for vice governor and was defeated by Ismael Mastura who got at least 30,000 votes more than the patriarch.

Mangudadatu won over Datu Ombra Sinsuat and Datu Midpantao Midtimbang.  The former was Ampatuan’s candidate for governor and the latter was supposed to have been the candidate for vice governor but when Ampatuan Sr.  decided at the last minute to run for vice governor, Midtimbang opted to run for governor instead, dividing the votes and eventually paving the way for a Mangudadatu victory.

Mangudadatu, who lost his wife Genalin, two sisters and several other relatives, to the massacre,  hosted the reunion of the families of the victims.

He told the families how he wanted to install a marker in the massacre site, etched with the names of the victims, and a small building where families can visit and perform rituals but was told that the site is still “considered a crime scene and still part of the criminal proceedings.”

Mangudadatu distributed envelopes containing some amount as assistance to the victims’ families, from the Nurjanna Foundation named after a daughter who died five years ago.

Truth and Accountability

Members of the state prosecution panel on Friday visited the crime site in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town in Maguindanao but the ocular visit was cut short because of the rains.

De Lima arrived in General Santos City earlier in the morning and proceeded  to a media forum on the recent victims of media killings — Desidario “Jessie” Camangyan, a blocktimer at Sunrise FM-Mati City, Davao Oriental on June 14 and Nestor Bedolido, editorial consultant of the weekly Kastigador and publisher of the Mt. Apo Current in Davao del Sur on June 19 – and a follow-up on the case of Dennis Cuesta of Radyo Mindanao Network General Santos.

De Lima said they were seriously considering a “superbody” or a Presidential special team that would ensure cooperation and coordination between the police and prosecutors.

From General Santos, De Lima traveled to Tacurong City for the families of the Ampatuan Massacre victims.

“Much needs to be done to build and strengthen our legal framework and processes in order to eradicate the culture of impunity that still permeates our country. We need to break such culture of impunity. We will rely on your cooperation and assistance in our own effort to address this threat to society.”

“Truth and accountability must henceforth be the order of the day,” de Lima said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)