Members of powerful Ampatuan clan charged with 2009 Maguindanao massacre

Members of powerful Ampatuan clan charged with 2009 Maguindanao massacre
Members of powerful Ampatuan clan charged with 2009 Maguindanao massacre

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - MANILA: Ten years on from the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in which 57 people died — including 32 journalists and media workers — justice has finally been served.

On Thursday, Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 found the principal accused — led by key members of the powerful Ampatuan clan based in the southern Philippines — guilty of perpetrating what was reportedly the worst election-related violence in the country’s history and the world’s deadliest attack on journalists.

In her 761-page decision, Reyes said the prosecution had been able to “establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt” for 28 of the suspects found to have acted as principals. Among them are brothers Andal Ampatuan Jr. and Zaldy Ampatuan. They were sentenced to reclusion perpetua — which will mean up to 40 years in jail without parole and a ban on holding political office in future.

The Magiudanao massacre took place on November 23, 2009. A convoy of supporters and family members of the then-Buluan town vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu was making its way to Shariff Aguak to file his certificate of candidacy for governor — a post for which Andal Jr. was also running. Members of the local press had joined them to cover the activity.

Along the way, however, the convoy was blocked, and the people in it were abducted by more than 100 armed men. Aside from the 32 media workers killed, the victims also included more than 20 women, among them Mangudadatu’s wife and sisters.

During the trial, prosecution witnesses said they saw Andal Jr. shoot the victims. He later instructed his men to “hurry up” and bury the bodies, which were later found in a mass grave on a hilltop in Ampatuan town.

Andal Jr. was the mayor of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao when the massacre took place, while Zaldy was governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) until 2015.

The clan’s patriarch — Andal Sr. — died in 2015 while undergoing trial, but was also sentenced to reclusion perpetua.

Others convicted as principals behind the massacre included Sajid Ampatuan. Anwar Ampatuan Sr., Anwar “Ipi” Ampatuan Jr., Manny Ampatuan, and several police officers, among them Police Superintendent Abusama Mundas Maguid, Police Superintendent Bahnarin Kamaong, Police Chief Inspector Sukarno Dicay, and Police Inspector Saudi Mokamad.

The fifteen other accused, of whom 14 are police officers and one an Ampatuan aide identified as Bong Andal, were convicted as accessories to the crime and sentenced to between six years and 10 years, eight months in prison.

Meanwhile, four Ampatuans — Datu Akmad alias “Tato,” Islam, Jonathan, and Jimmy— along with 49 other suspects were acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt, while three more were acquitted “as the evidence of the prosecution has absolutely failed to prove their guilt.”

Following the verdict, Mangudadatu, now a member of the House of Representatives, expressed satisfaction over the decision, saying it was “worth the wait.”

Members of the prosecution panel likewise said they were happy with the outcome of the case, despite the acquittal of some of the suspects. “Justice has been done, considering the primary accused were convicted,” they said in a press conference, adding that they needed to go over the 761-page decision in full before determining what action, if any, to take next.

Meanwhile, human rights groups and media organizations said the verdict should prompt the government and advocates to step up their efforts in dismantling private armies.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Asia Division’s deputy director, said “This momentous verdict should help provide justice to the families of the victims, and build toward greater accountability for rights abuses in the country.

“Advocates should use this verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long,” he continued. “More broadly, this verdict should prompt the country’s political leaders to finally act to end state support for private armies and militias that promote the political warlordism that gave rise to the Ampatuans.”

The Defense Press Corps, for its part, said, “Ten years ago, we lost 32 of our own in history’s single deadliest attack against journalists. A decade later we have not forgotten and remain vigilant against all forms of impunity.

“The guilty verdict against the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre must serve as a clarion cry against violence, harassment and oppression directed at society’s vanguards of truth — the fourth estate.

“It is said that ‘justice may limp along, but it gets there all the same,” the DPC’s statement continued, adding, “The families who lost loved ones in the condemnable act of barbarity 10 years ago may have finally been given the justice they have been seeking but we, the members of the Defense Press Corps, will forge on in our duty to speak for the voiceless and call out tyranny where it takes root.”

The country’s leadership also welcomed the verdict. “The court has spoken and rendered its decision on the basis of the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense,” said presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo in a statement. “There were guilty verdicts and acquittals. It behooves the parties to respect them. . . Those who disagree with the judgments of the court have legal remedies at their disposal. Ultimately, it will be the Supreme Court that will give the final judgment. For now, what is important is that the rule of law has prevailed,” he stated.

“This savage affront to human rights should never have a duplication in this country’s history,” he continued. “The incident is one of the factors that prompted the president to anchor his presidency on the preservation and maintenance of law and order in the entire country.”

Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo Lacson pointed out that justice delayed is not justice denied.

“Considering the number of respondents involved, not to mention the power and influence of local politics with undeniably strong connections with the national government — at least at the time the ambush-slaying of 58 victims was perpetrated — the judge who conducted the trial deserves high commendation and gratitude from the judiciary and the whole nation as well,” he said.

“Without doubt, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has immensely contributed to a renewed trust and confidence in the people of the administration of justice in our country,” he continued. “I am certain that she went through tremendous pressure and threats during the conduct of the trial. I therefore take my hat off to Judge Reyes for her courage and integrity.”

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