By the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR
Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network
ON DEC. 19, 2019, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, presiding judge of Branch 221 of the regional trial court of Quezon City, will promulgate the ruling on the Ampatuan Massacre case, after over nine years of trial.
The case called the attention of press organizations in the Philippine and of international media groups. The killings that occurred on Nov. 23, 2009 were described as the “deadliest strike against the press in history.”
The massacre underscored the dangers to journalists in the Philippines, as advocates for press freedom and justice have focused on the months and years of trial.
THE TRIAL AND FACTS OF CASE
On Nov. 23, 2009, 58 persons were killed in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province. The victims included 32 journalists and media workers, two lawyers, six motorists passing the same route, and the wife and sisters of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, at that time the vice-mayor of Buluan town in Maguindanao.
The Mangudadatu women were on their way to Shariff Aguak to file Toto’s certificate of candidacy for the 2010 gubernatorial elections. The convoy included media practitioners, and members of the community press, including broadcasters from TV and radio.
The media practitioners and workers — many of them from General Santos City and Koronadal City — were covering the filing of Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy, which his wife, Genalin, would accomplish on his behalf. The case also exemplified the violence that tars the record of elections in the country.
The Ampatuans were the ruling clan in Maguindanao: Andal Ampatuan Sr. was governor of the province and Andal Jr., or Datu Unsay, was mayor of Ampatuan town.
Mangudadatu’s challenge was news, a story that concerned not only the local community, but also the national public. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo publicly acknowledged the Ampatuans as important allies, making them powerful partisans in national politics.
DEATH AND DISAPPEARANCES
The hearings began on Jan. 5, 2010. Identifying so many suspects took time. And some could not be found. By early 2013, only 81 of the 98 arrested suspects had been arraigned. The number of the accused included in the same charge sheet, no one could expect a quick trial.
Eight of the accused died during the period of trial. On July 17, 2015, Andal Ampatuan Sr. died of a heart attack while in detention.
A potential witness, Suwahid Upham was killed in June 2010. Upham had admitted in a media interview that he was one of those who killed the victims, and that it was Datu Unsay himself who shot Genalyn Mangudadatu, the wife of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadtu.
Witness Esmael Enog was killed after he testified in court that he was ordered by his boss, Alijol Ampatuan, to drive armed men to Barangay Malating, the site of the massacre.
Although only 31 accused were initially charged with the massacre, the number of the accused increased to 197 after the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) added more names to the list of suspects.
CUMBERSOME COURSE OF JUSTICE
Seventy detained suspects asked to be released on bail, which meant the court had to hear their petitions in lengthy proceedings.
The bail hearings for Datu Unsay alone took years, as witnesses were examined and cross-examined by both the prosecution and the defense. It was only on May 30, 2017, seven years after the trial began, that Judge Solis-Reyes denied Datu Unsay’s petition for bail.
The defense also filed numerous motions which added weeks and months to the process. Representing three of the accused Ampatuans, lawyer Philip Sigfrid Fortun asked Judge Solis-Reyes to recuse herself, filing six motions and an additional related motion. By 2013, the defense would file nine such motions, lengthening the time of trial.
In 2014, the Fortun Narvaza & Salazar Law Office, which represented several members of the Ampatuan family, withdrew as counsel. The defense of Unsay was taken over by the Fortun & Santos Law Office where Sigfrid’s brother, Raymond, is a name partner. Other clients were taken over by other law firms.
The court gave each motion the time allowed by the Rules of Court.
In August 2019, as defense lawyers were due to submit a memorandum summing up their arguments, lawyer Paul Laguatan, then counsel of Datu Unsay, asked for the re-opening of the trial; which the court promptly denied.
Furthermore, eight contempt and two disbarment cases were also filed against the private prosecutor, lawyer Nena Santos. The numerous motions for reconsideration, the time given for the defendants to find new lawyers, as well as “delaying tactics of the defense”, tied up the case during the last three years.
“Maraming panahon na ginugol para i-resolve ’yung mga pending motions ng defense na napakarami,” said Nena Santos. She said the Ampatuans also filed cases against the witnesses and lawyers for the prosecution.
SUPREME COURT INTERVENES FOR SPEED
To speed up the trial, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno issued new guidelines in December 2013, which named an “Assisting Judge” to Branch 221 who could take over some of the work in the trial. This allowed the submission of judicial affidavits instead of requiring all witnesses to testify before the court. Both the Presiding Judge (Solis-Reyes) and the Assisting Judge could resolve pending motions before them.
Although some of the motions had been appealed to higher courts, the measures “helped a lot,” Santos said, adding that the Supreme Court also assigned several lawyers to assist Solis-Reyes to resolve the numerous motions filed by the defense.
The outcome of the trial turns on the testimonies of the witnesses presented by the prosecution and the defense.
The prosecution presented 134 people, with its key witnesses narrating how they heard the Ampatuans plan the killing as early as July 2009, and as late as November 19, 2009, or just four days before the massacre; how they saw Datu Unsay, at that time the mayor of Ampatuan town, kill the victims and later, heard him give orders to “hurry up” in burying of the bodies.
This number does not include the 58 private complainants who testified on the extent of damage and suffering caused by the Massacre to their families.
The defense, on the other hand, presented several of Datu Unsay’s municipal officials, who testified that he was in a meeting at the town hall at the time of the massacre; two former prosecution witnesses who later recanted; and Datu Unsay himself.
KEY WITNESSES: PROSECUTION
In its memorandum, the prosecution underscored the testimony of several witnesses:
SUKARNO BADAL, who said he saw the Ampatuans plan the killing and Datu Unsay take part in the massacre.
Badal was a trusted man of the Ampatuans. He said he was present in two meetings. In July 2009, he witnessed the Ampatuans as they discussed the plan to kill Mangudadatu. Another meeting in November 2009 discussed more details.
On Nov. 23, 2009, he testified that he saw the victims killed by the accused, among them Andal Ampatuan Jr. Badal was among those initially charged in the information, but was dropped when he turned state witness.
ESMAEL CANAPIA, who said he saw Datu Unsay at the site of the massacre telling someone to hurry up in burying the bodies.
Canapia lived in Masalay village, the place of the massacre. On the day of the killing, he said he saw Datu Unsay with militia men, police officers, and some of the other accused in Masalay, telling someone to hurry up in burying the bodies. Canapia was among those initially charged in the information, and then turned state witness.
RASUL SANGKI, who said Datu Unsay told him of the plan to ambush the Mangudadatu convoy on its way to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), and that he was with Datu Unsay and the other accused when the victims were killed.
Sangki is a former vice-mayor of Ampatuan town. Sangki said Datu Unsay told him of the plan to ambush the Mangudadatu convoy. He was with Datu Unsay when the latter talked to Andal Sr., after which Datu Unsay ordered the group to go on to Masalay. Sangki said he saw how Datu Unsay and the other accused kill the victims, after which Datu Unsay told him to go to Malating and tell people to say that they saw and heard nothing.
KEY WITNESSES: DEFENSE
The defense presented two former prosecution witnesses who had recanted their testimonies, and who told the court that they were forced to sign their earlier affidavits.
As a witness for the prosecution, LAGUDIN ALFONSO had said earlier that he was near the checkpoint at Crossing Masalay in the morning of November 23, 2009. For the defense, he said he was instead with Thonti Lawani and Akmad Abubakar, another prosecution witness, in the house of Rasul Sangki.
THONTI LAWANI had earlier said he saw the convoy of Datu Unsay going toward the mountainous portion of Masalay, and later heard gunshots coming from the direction where the convoy was headed. Recanting this testimony, he then testified for the defense, saying that he was not at Crossing Masalay on November 23, 2009.
FABIAN S. FABIAN, a Philippine Airlines (PAL) supervisor, testified that based on their records, Datu Unsay took a flight from Los Angeles, USA, on November 16, 2009, arriving in Manila in the morning of November 18, 2009. This was corroborated by the testimony of Immigration Officer Feliana Ong, who told the court that based on immigration records, Datu Unsay left the Philippines on Nov. 9, 2009, and returned on Nov. 18, 2009. This disputed the claim of Lakmodin Saliao, who said that Datu Unsay attended a meeting on Nov. 17, 2009.
Datu Unsay himself took the witness stand to deny that he was at the massacre site in the morning of the killing, saying that it was impossible for him to be with Mohamad Sangki and Rasul Sangki as the two hated him. Rasul had testified that he saw Datu Unsay and his men kill the 58 victims, while Mohamad told the court that Datu Unsay forcibly loaded two women on a vehicle and ordered his men to confiscate the bags and wallets of the victims, and then left Sitio Malating with Rasul Sangki.
ABEDIN ALAMADA, former councilor of Ampatuan town, said Datu Unsay attended the meeting from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., as can be seen on the Minutes of the Meeting, which was signed by the attendees. Alamada is one of the co-accused in the case.
THEORY OF THE PROSECUTION
The prosecution said the Ampatuans executed the massacre; planning the murder as early as July, when Toto Mangudadatu made it clear that he was running for governor to contest the political hold of the Ampatuans over Maguindanao province.
In the memorandum it submitted at the end of the trial, the prosecution recalled the 1995 killing of Akas Paglala and his brother, Omar, as Akas was on his way to file his certificate of candidacy for mayor of Maganoy town. The suspect was Zaldy Ampatuan, the son of Andal Sr., at that time the mayor of Maganoy. The Paglalas did not file charges, and the Ampatuans went on to consolidate their hold over Maguindanao.
The prosecution presented witnesses who told the court that they heard the plan to kill Mangudadatu as it was being discussed months and days before the killing; saw Datu Unsay, on his way to Sitio Masalay, where the massacre happened; and saw him shoot at the victims himself and give instructions to bury the bodies and later, saw the backhoe burying the victims.
THEORY OF THE DEFENSE
The lawyers of Andal Jr., on the other hand, said not enough evidence had been presented to prove that it was Datu Unsay who killed the 58 victims. A memorandum filed by Unsay’s lawyer claimed that neither the bullets nor the guns used in the massacre were presented in court, nor were “trace evidence” such as fingerprints, footprints, gunshot residue or DNA, that would have corroborated the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses. The defense added that while the prosecution presented witnesses who saw the killing, these were “incentivized witnesses” who testified in exchange for money or favors, or were relatives of the Mangudadatus.
“[A] thorough review of the… evidence… would not let any man rest easy on the moral certainty that the accused committed the acts against him…,” the defense said in its memorandum, insisting that there was no evidence that would prove Datu Unsay killed the victims, nor that there was a conspiracy to do so.
The defense insisted that Datu Unsay arrived from the United States on Nov. 18, 2009; that on Nov. 23, the day of the massacre, he was at the Municipal Hall of Datu Unsay Municipality where he presided over a meeting with local officials which ended at 12:30 p.m., and that he voluntarily presented himself to the authorities on Nov. 26, 2009, to explain his side.
Like the prosecution, the defense argued that the case was politically-motivated: Mangudadatu was a political opponent of the Ampatuans, and some of the witnesses — like the Sangkis — were not only related to the Mangudadatus, they were also members of political clans in Mindanao. Rasul Sangki, one of the key witnesses of the prosecution, was vice mayor of Ampatuan town at the time of the massacre; by 2019 he was Ampatuan town mayor.
PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE
The constitutional presumption of innocence sets a high bar for the prosecution. The burden is on the accuser to prove the charges, not for the accused to prove his innocence. It is this bar that the defense invoked: the prosecution, it said, has not presented enough evidence to prove that Datu Unsay committed the crime beyond reasonable doubt.
The prosecution, on the other hand, says that the eyewitnesses they presented — who told the court they heard the massacre planned, saw Datu Unsay shoot the victims; and the doctors who testified that the victims died of gunshot wounds, are enough to convict.
Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 submitted the case for decision on August 22, 2019 and was thus required by a Supreme Court circular to issue her verdict 90 days later in November. But citing the “voluminous records” of the case, she requested an extension of 30 days which the Supreme Court has granted. The promulgation of decision is expected on or before December 20.
The documents of the court case include:
- 165 volumes of records on the trial;
- 65 records of stenographic notes; and
- Eight records of the prosecution’s documentary evidence.
- The court received the testimony of 357 witnesses.
Murder charges were filed against 197 persons.
The accused members of Ampatuan family include the patriarch of the clan, Andal Ampatuan Sr., who was accused of planning the massacre; and Andal Ampatuan Jr., or Datu Unsay, who is accused of leading the killing himself.
Andal Sr., then 74, died in July, 2015 while in detention.
Of those charged, 80 are still at large as all efforts to arrest them had failed.
Ninety-seven are detained in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, including Andal Jr.
Eleven of those charged were released on bail.
Eight have either been released or had the case against them dismissed.
GLOBAL ADVOCACY FOR JUSTICE
The press community has worked hard to keep the case alive on the news agenda.
Various media groups have joined their advocacies, administering funds for humanitarian assistance for families of the victims and scholarships for the orphans.
The UN-declared International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) for Crimes Against Journalists heightened activities each November since 2009, from candle-lighting to marches to memorial ceremonies in Masalay.
But the crime, the trial, and its outcome are the concern, not only of journalists and the families of the victims. It should be understood by every Filipino as an example of the use of violence as an instrument of politics. It is the same political arena that generates much of the news reported by journalists to the public.
Even without the 32 media victims in Ampatuan, the killing of journalists has long tainted the record of attacks and threats on press freedom in the Philippines. There are too many stories stained by blood and too many perpetrators of such violence are not even taken to courts.
It is therefore important to hear the decision on December 19.
The lessons of the trial belong to the people so these can empower them to end impunity, to change the culture of politics and course of our national history.
For the victims, the decision should allow them finally to rest in peace, grant their loved ones a measure of justice, and with it, comfort and consolation after their long wait.