1,000 days after the Ampatuan Massacre, justice remains elusive

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/18 August) – A thousand days and still no justice.

Journalists and relatives of victims of the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 persons, 32 of them from the media, will gather Sunday to commemorate the 1,000th day since the massacre and to reiterate calls for justice.

In General Santos, families of massacre victims will hold a press conference at the Forest Lake Memorial Park in General Santos at 4 p.m. after a mass and motorcade around the city. They will also exhibit art works made by the children of the slain journalists.

In Metro Manila, media groups such as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Philippine Press Institute, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and networks ABS-CBN and GMA7 will mark the 1000th day with a vigil at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City from 4 p.m. Sunday to 9 a.m. Monday.

In a statement, the NUJP said the vigil “aims to remember the fallen victims of the massacre, 32 of whom are members of media.”

“The continued killings of journalists and refusal of Congress to pass the Freedom of Information Law have underscored the dire state of press freedom in the country,” it said.

The Ampatuan Masacre is the single most brutal attack against journalists worldwide and the worst pre-election violent incident in Philippine history.

The convoy of 53 persons led by Genalyn, the wife of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu , was en route to the Commission on Elections provincial office in Shariff Aguak town in Maguindanao to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy.

Along the national highway in Ampatuan, the town just before Shariff Aguak, the 53-person convoy and five others in two vehicles that happened to pass at the wrong time, were stopped by about a hundred armed men reportedly led by then Datu Unsay mayor Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan, Jr., and herded some 3.5 kilometers into the foothills of Daguma Range in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, where they were gunned down.

Using a backhoe, the perpetrators buried the victims, crushed at least three vehicles and buried them along with the dead, in an apparent attempt to hide any evidence of their crime.

A thousand days later, however, justice for the victims remains elusive. Of the 196 officials, police and militiamen accused in the case, 96 were arrested, 76 were arraigned, and 100 of them, including some members of the Ampatuan clan, have remained at large.

“Shall we forgive and forget?”

In his State of the Nation Address last July 23, President Aquino asked: “Shall we forgive and forget the orphans of the (58) victims of the massacre in Maguindanao? Will their loved ones be brought back to life by forgiving and forgetting? Do we forgive and forget everything that was ever done to us, to sink us into a rotten state? Do we forgive and forget to return to the former status quo? My response: Forgiveness is possible; forgetting is not. If offenders go unpunished, society’s future suffering is guaranteed.”

At the massacre site on November 23, 2010, the first anniversary, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said what is at trial in the massacre case “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.

De Lima, who was chair of the Commission on Human Rights in 2009, visited the site a few 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.”

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.”

Also at the first anniversary rites, President Benigno Simeon Aquino sent a message read by Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles, the presidential adviser on the peace process. His four-paragraph statement said the resolution of the case, “has become the litmus test of our justice system.” He said it is one of the top priorities of the Justice Department.

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

NUJP has coordinated with artists’ groups, cultural singers, poets, actors and other artists to share songs and poems that tackle injustice and the continuing impunity under Pres. Benigno Aquino III’s watch.

Families of victims will be at the vigil to reiterate their calls for justice.

The NUJP statement said social media advocates will also join the commemoration by posting and sharing blogs and photos on the issue. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)