MASSACRE SITE, Ampatuan, Maguindanao (MindaNews/22 November) – “We will not rest until justice has been served,” President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, then barely five months into his six-year term in 2010, vowed in a four-paragraph statement on the first anniversary of the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre.
Fifty-eight persons were killed that Monday five years ago, 32 of them from the media, in the worst pre-election-related violence in the country and the single largest attack on journalists in the world.
“The resolution of these cases has become the litmus test of our justice system. It is one of the top priorities of the Justice Department. We will not rest until justice has been served,” said Aquino in the statement read for him by Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles, during the commemoration of the fist anniversary here on November 23, 2010.
At that time, the Aquino administration still had five years and seven months to the end of its term on June 30, 2016, within which to fulfill that vow.
Today, the Aquino administration has only 19 months and a week left.
Families of the media victims have appealed to Pope Francis who is visiting Manila and Leyte in January, to help them in their quest for justice.
“Nagsusumamo kami sa iyo, mahal na Santo Papa, na tulungan kaming mabigyan ng hustisya,” said the letter jointly read after the anniversary mass here on Friday by representatives of the families of the victims.
“Kaya dito sa lugar na ito, limang taon makaraan ang masaker, hinihiling namin na kami’y iyong ipagdasal at sa kahit anong paraang maari, bilang pinakamataas na pinuno ng Simbahang Katoliko, ay samahan kami sa paglalakbay tungo sa katarungan,” (Here in this place five years after the massacre, we ask you to please pray for us and to help us in whatever way the highest official of the Catholic Church can, to accompany us in this journey for justice), the 18-paragraph letter added.
Among the relatives of the victims, Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, whose wife, Genalyn, two sisters and several relatives were among those killed, appears to be the most optimistic that justice would be served in the remaining 19 months of the Aquino administration.
“Kaya” (It can be achieved), Mangudadatu, a member of the Liberal Party like the President, told MindaNews Friday afternoon in his hometown in Buluan town. He said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was arriving here for the 5th anniversary rites on Sunday.
ABS-CBNnews.com reported that de Lima is looking forward to having “a dialogue with the families of the victims and (to) touch base with some witnesses.”
Since 2011, families of the media victims have been commemorating the anniversary a day or two earlier while Mangudadatu has maintained the annual ritual on the 23rd , also involving the families of media victims.
“Whole government system on trial”
It will be the third time De Lima will visit this massacre site. The first was in 2009 when she was chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), in the company of forensic experts, one of whom said the place reminded him of Rwanda.
The second was on November 23, 2010, the first anniversary, where she said, “What is at trial here 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.
“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 said that after the exact magnitude of the atrocities was finally discovered, “we, Filipinos, realized that we just woke up to a world that will never be the same again. Not for the families who lost loved ones on that infamous day, and certainly not for the rest of the Filipino people who were just treated to a shameless display of pure, unadulterated evil.”
She acknowledged the personal loss and sorrow of the families of the victims and the communal loss of the nation. “That day marked, not just the loss of innocence but, sadly, the loss of humanity.”
Not one of the 197 accused has been convicted since charges were filed in 2009.
In late October 2014, following the infighting among government and private prosecutors as well as charges of corruption hounding the government prosecutors, de Lima announced she was personally overseeing the work of the prosecution panel handling the case, taking over from Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III who denied allegations by private prosecutor Nena Santos, that he received some P20 million bribe from the Ampatuans.
Fifty-eight persons were killed, 32 of them from the media, when armed men reportedly led by then Datu Unsay mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr., flagged down along the GenSan-Cotabato highway the convoy of six vehicles from the camp of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, as they were on their way to the next town, Shariff Aguak, to file the latter’s certificate of candidacy for governor.
There were 52 of them in the convoy but six other persons in two Cotabato-bound vehicles that happened to pass at the wrong time, were mistaken to be part of the convoy and were also stopped at gunpoint and diverted towards Masalay, at the foothills of Daguma Range.
Navigate around the Ampatuan Massacre grave site below. You can look up, down, and turn in any direction using your cursor, mouse or touchpad. On mobile gadgets, you can navigate by touch or by pointing your phone or tablet in different directions. MindaNews 360° by Toto Lozano
Andal Jr., intended to run for governor unopposed, as his father, three-term governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., was, in 2007.
No one would have known about the dastardly act if the soldiers and a helicopter owned by the Mangudadatus had not reached the place at around 3 p.m. By then, more than half of the victims and three of the eight vehicles had been buried.
The first day body count was shocking: 21. The next day, the death toll rose to 46 and another 11 on the third day, along with three vehicles. One remains missing to this day, but for his dentures.
De Lima in 2010 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.”
“Magtiwala po kayo na maigi naming babantayan ang takbo ng kasong ito, lalo na anumang pagtatangka na patagalin ito, kasama na ang anumang tangkang guluhin at takutin ang mga taong mahahalaga para sa tagumpay ng prosekusyon” (Rest assured that we will guard this against attempts to delay as well as attempts to sow terror and fear on the witnesses who are vital to the success of the prosecution), she said.
Fr. Rey Carvyn Ondap of the Passionist Fathers, who also officiated the anniversary mass on November 22 last year, challenged the Aquino administration to have the alleged bribery of government prosecutors investigated not only by the National Bureau of Investigation but also by the Ombudsman “if we still have a government agency that we can trust now.”
He said Justice Secretary de Lima’s assumption as overseer of the prosecutor panel “could be a lead that this case would go straightly, directly, urgently, immediately at matapos na lahat.”
He expressed hope that the case would not be used as political propaganda in the next election, as he recalled how the massacre was made part of the campaign ad in 2010 of then Presidential candidate, Benigno Simeon Aquino III.
Ondap said he hopes that justice is served before the end of Aquino’s term, and that the conviction would not be of only one of the Ampatuans but all of them.
He said he would pray that there would be “no judicial and political Yolanda” in the case “otherwise, even if it’s 58 years, 50 years, there would still be no justice.”
Last year he prayed there would be “no political or judicial Yolanda” because “it’s just like we were hit by a typhoon or earthquake, we will be coming back here again and again to commemorate anniversaries but the case won’t move and justice is not served.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)