A year after the Philippines witnessed the mass slaughter of 58 people, including 32 journalists, justice for the victims’ families seems a distant prospect. Harry Roque reports.
One year after the world’s deadliest attack against journalists, the families of the 58 victims of the Ampatuan massacre continue to hope that their quest for justice will not be in vain. Time does not appear to be on their side. The numbers are dire: both the prosecution and defence have told the court that they will present the testimonies of at least 500 witnesses. After a year of trial, only 13 witnesses have been presented, many of whom may still be recalled for cross-examination since almost all of those who have testified did so only in opposition to the petition for bail filed by a principal suspect in the case, Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr.
Of the 196 accused of perpetrating the massacre, one has been acquitted, and only 79 have been apprehended by the authorities. An overwhelming number of those indicted for the massacre continue to be at large, including no less than 21 members of the Ampatuan clan. Of those in custody, only 51 have been arraigned. Neither Andal Ampatuan Sr, the patriarch, nor Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, have been arraigned because they still have pending petitions in the Court of Appeals questioning the existence of probable cause against them. Meanwhile, at least three witnesses, including self-confessed gunman Suwaid Upham, have been killed and silenced. Many other witnesses, and their immediate families, are on the run fearing that their testimonies may endanger their own lives and those of their loved ones.
There is good news though. To begin with, at least five members of the Ampatuan family, including the patriarch and his two sons, are at least in jail while the trial drags on. “There is at least consolation in the fact that although they have not been found guilty, the Ampatuans are already paying for their sins in jail”, said Myrna Reblando, whose husband, Alejandro or “Bong”, was the only full time employee of a national daily newspaper, The Manila Bulletin, killed in the massacre. There too is the fact that according to witness Rainier Ebus, it was Andal “Unsay” Jr, his cousin Datu Kanor, who is still at large, and several other gunmen, the majority of whom are members of the Ampatuan’s private army, who shot and killed all 58 victims at close range using high-powered firearms. His testimony corroborated to the letter the narration of Upham, the witness who was killed. “Somehow, this truth about who actually killed my son aggravates the pain”, said Catherine Nunez, mother of UNTV cameraman Victor Nunez, who was killed in the massacre.
There have also been at least two witnesses who positively identified the patriarch, the former ARRM Governor and other members of the Ampatuan family as taking part in the planning of the massacre. Witness Lakmudin Saliao, a former household helper of the Ampatuans, testified that he was present in at least two meetings where the clan agreed that their own relative, Ismael “Toto” Mangundadatu, should not be allowed to challenge their rein in Maguindanao. According to the witness, the decision was unanimous: kill “Toto” and whoever would be with him when he files his certificate of candidacy. At one point, the patriarch was quoted by this witness as having ordered his son “Unsay” to spare the journalists and women who were part of the convoy. But the same witness related how the old men also relented after being told by his son that the survivors may give evidence if their lives were spared.
More importantly, the witnesses presented thus far have testified to attempts to cover up this massacre in addition to the earlier attempt to bury all of its victims and their vehicles. The former servant testified how immediately after the carnage, the patriarch authorised the release of 400m pesos (roughly USD 10m) to pay off prosecutors, investigators and witnesses whom they wanted to retract their earlier testimonies. Worse, the witness also testified how no lesser figure than a cabinet member of the former Arroyo regime, Jesus Dureza — ironically was a former journalist himself —was ordered to be given at least 20m pesos (US500,000) albeit for unclear reasons. This is the same Jesus Dureza to whom the Ampatuan clan surrendered custody of “Unsay” Ampatuan, after allegedly agreeing that former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would ultimately exercise custody over the patriarch’s heir-apparent. Until Arroyo was defeated by Benigno Aquino III in May’s presidential election, this move bolstered the victim’s families fears that they would not find justice while Arroyo was in power given the Ampatuan’s very close personal and political ties with the former president.
Meanwhile, the families of the victims continue to grapple with both the emotional pain and financial pressures brought about by the loss of their loved ones, many of whom were the sole breadwinners of their families. While the Philippine government has given each of the victims at least USD 6,000 by way of financial assistance, this could hardly compensate them for both the economic loss and the emotional pain created by the massacre. “I have to be strong for the sake of my child. I have to invest the little financial assistance I have received to raise my son”, declared Arlene Umpad, live-in partner of McDelbert Arriola, a camera man for UNTV, who was amongst those killed. Arlene has invested part of the money she has received to raise cows in the Province of Quezon where she and her child relocated for security reasons. Arlene, apart from tending to her cows, now also has to raise her child alone. Her son was merely three-months-old when the massacre happened. Her deceased partner was the youngest victim of the massacre.
Many families of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre have opted not to attend the commemoration of the tragedy at the scene of the massacre. “I will be busy tending to the grave of my husband”, said Zenaida Duhay. Another widow, Noemi Parcon, expressed apprehension about the very safety of the commemoration itself since days before, a bomb exploded in the national highway leading to the massacre site. Noemi added: “what is more important is for government to hasten the prosecution so we can obtain justice soon”.
As the Philippines and world commemorate the worst attack on journalists in modern history, the families of the victims will light candles in the tombs of their loved ones. A candle, in the Philippines, is a symbol of remembrance. But to some, it is also a message: that while the flame is burning, the memories of those who have moved on will not be forgotten. And with this comes the prayer that soon there will be justice.
Professor Harry L Roque, Jr is list counsel, International Criminal Court; executive council, International Criminal Bar; chair, Center for International Law. He represents 14 victims of the Maguindanao massacre in domestic and international litigation