Relatives want transparency on status of detained Ampatuan massacre suspects

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 22 Nov) – Relatives of the Ampatuan massacre victims called on the national government to implement measures that would ensure transparency on the status and condition of the detained principal suspects in the grisly killings.

Grace Morales, secretary-general of the Justice Now Movement (JNM), specifically urged Malacañang to direct the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) to make public the living conditions of the suspects led by former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., who are presently jailed at the Camp Bagong Diwa detention center in Bicutan, Taguig City.

She said their group wants the BJMP to install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the detention cells and allow random inspections by the media, prosecutors and relatives of the massacre victims.

“There are persistent reports that the jailed Ampatuans are receiving special treatment and not treated as ordinary inmates. But we don’t have any means to validate this and we’re not even sure if they’re still there,” she said.

Since the principal suspects were sent to the Bicutan detention facility, Morales said their lawyers and the media had attempted several times to visit or check on the inmates but were barred by the BJMP to do so.

Lawyer Prima Quinsayas, counsel for the families of the 17 massacre victims, said she had tried to make formal arrangements to visit the Ampatuans’ cells to no avail.

“This has been going on for the last three years and we don’t understand why they (BJMP personnel) were so adamant with regards to the inspections,” she said.

Fifty-eight people, including 32 journalists, were killed in the massacre on November 23, 2009 that had been dubbed as the single deadliest event for journalists in history.

JNM and media groups led by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines are currently commemorating the fourth anniversary of the infamous massacre.

Of the 197 massacre suspects initially charged with multiple murder in 2010, three had been removed from the list due to the death of the accused, lack of probable cause and dropping from the case’s information.

Fifteen of the remaining 194 accused were members of the influential Ampatuan political clan of Maguindanao.

Eight of them, led by the Ampatuan patriarch Andal Sr., had been arrested and already arraigned before Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221.

The seven others are the elder Ampatuan’s sons former Datu Unsay, Maguindanao Mayor Andal Jr., former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy, former Maguindanao vice governor Sajid Islam and former Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao Mayor Anwar Sr.; nephew and brother-in-law former Mamasapano, Maguindanao Mayor Akmad Sr.; and, grandsons former Shariff Aguak vice mayor Anwar Jr. and Anwar Sajid.

Aside from these, JNM asked the Department of Justice’s panel of prosecutors assigned on the case to provide them with regular updates, including progress of the ongoing trial.

“This will show whether the government is really on our side or not,” Morales said.

She said their group is also pushing for the resumption of the live media coverage for the Ampatuan massacre trial.

“It’s difficult for us to monitor the developments on the case and actual trial because we could no longer afford to attend the hearings,” she said.

The Supreme Court (SC) partially granted on June 14, 2011 the petitions for live broadcast by television and radio of the hearings at the Quezon City RTC Branch 221, which is presided by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, “subject to specific guidelines.”

But in a resolution dated October 23, 2012, the court disallowed the live media broadcast of the Ampatuan massacre trial although it is still “allowing the filming of the proceedings for the real-time transmission to specified viewing areas, and documentation.”

The SC said that while it “recognizes the freedom of the press and the right to public information, which, by the way, are rights that belong to non-direct parties to the case, the rights of the direct parties should not be forgotten. In a clash among these competing interests and in terms of the values the Constitution recognizes, jurisprudence makes it clear that the balance should always be weighed in favor of the accused.”