KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 22 November) — For the first time in a decade, families of the media workers killed in the infamous Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao province on November 23, 2009 will not visit and offer prayers at the massacre site on its 11th anniversary on Monday due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Mary Grace Morales, who lost two family members to the massacre masterminded by members of the influential Ampatuan clan, said their traditional visit a day or two before the massacre anniversary to pay respects to their loved ones and press for justice won’t push through “due to COVID-19 movement and mass gathering restrictions.”
Fifty eight persons including 32 media workers, were killed in the worst election-related violence in the country and the deadliest single attack against media workers in the world.
Morales, who lost her husband Rosell and sister Marites Cablitas both of News Focus, said they will instead offer a holy mass at the Forest Lake Memorial Park in General Santos City where some of the media victims were laid to rest.
She said the memorial park management allowed them to hold a commemoration activity with the condition that they will observe health protocols such as social distancing and wearing of personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We still have not achieved real justice. Some of the suspects are still at large. The fight is still a long way to go due to the legal process even if some of the Ampatuans were convicted,” said Morales, also the secretary of the Justice Now Movement, the association of the families of the media victims.
She was referring to the conviction of the brothers Andal Ampatuan, Jr., former mayor of Datu Unsay town and Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in December 2019, 10 years after the gruesome slayings.
A court in Quezon City found 43 suspects guilty of multiple murder, including the two brothers, and acquitted 56 others, among them, the youngest Ampatuan sibling, Sajid.
Of the 43, 28 were convicted of reclusion perpetua (40 years sentence) without parole and 15 others sentenced to six to 10 years as accessories to the crime.
Sajid Ampatuan, who was among those acquitted in the Ampatuan massacre case. was vice governor of Maguindanao at the time of the massacre. He is now mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha town.
The clan’s patriarch, former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., another principal suspect who was arrested in December 2009, succumbed to liver cancer in July 2015 while in detention. The Ampatuan patriarch died 42 days after he was admitted at a state-owned hospital in Quezon City for “advanced liver cancer,” and four days after he lapsed into a coma after a massive heart attack.
Andal, Jr. and Zaldy have sought a reconsideration of the lower court’s decision before the Court of Appeals.
Close to 80 other suspects, a dozen of them surnamed Ampatuan, remain at large and are being hunted by authorities.
The Freedom for Media Freedom For All network comprising the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, MindaNews and the Philippine Press Institute, will hold an online forum “Commemorating the Ampatuan Massacre: Media Killings and the Culture of Impunity”
The perpetrators tried to hide the gory massacre by burying the victims and their vehicles in freshly-dug graves in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman in Ampatuan town, using a backhoe of the provincial government of Maguindanao.
The November 23 slaughter came about after then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu challenged the decade-long power of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao.
Mangudadatu had sent his wife and several female family members to file his certificate of candidacy at the Commission on Elections in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao but their convoy was stopped by some 100 heavily-armed men led by then Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., in Ampatuan town, and herded them off to the hills where they were brutally killed. The media workers had joined the convoy to cover the filing of Mangudadatu’s COC.
Mangudadatu eventually won the gubernatorial race and finished the three terms allowed by law. He is now serving as the representative of the second district of Maguindanao.
Mangudadatu and his supporters, normally numbering in the hundreds, have been commemorating the victims’ death anniversary at the massacre site every November 23.
Mangudadatu said they will do the same for the 11th anniversary.
“We’ll offer ecumenical prayers at the site and continue to press our demand for justice,” he said in a telephone interview, noting that some of the Ampatuans allegedly involved have not been charged and that many of the suspects are still free.
Mangudadatu said he expects “some 500 to 1,000 supporters to come to the massacre site on Monday.”
He said they will follow the health protocols “to protect ourselves from the coronavirus.” (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)