Three years after the gruesome Maguindanao massacre, proceedings against the accused in what has been described as “the trial of the century” grind at a snail’s pace and have not even reached the halfway mark.
Lawyer Harry Roque, who represents families of journalists killed in the massacre, said that 91 of the 194 suspects in the case had yet to be arrested.
“If this were like climbing a 100-story building, we would still be on the 20th floor,” Roque said in an interview.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged President Aquino to do more to break up dozens of private armed groups in the wake of the country’s worst political massacre blamed on the powerful Ampatuan clan.
“Three years since the horrors of the Maguindanao massacre, the trial crawls along, half of the suspects remain at large, and the victims’ families still face threats,” Brad Adams, the New York-based rights group’s Asia director, said in a statement.
A Malacañang spokesperson, Ricky Carandang, said police had carried out raids against such groups, leading to some arrests.
Carandang cited an interior department report that showed only around 60 private armed groups remained, compared with 112 at the end of 2010.
“Of the 103 arrested suspects, only 81 have been arraigned. Those who have not been arraigned include former Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan,” Roque said, referring to the detained former head of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The Maguindanao massacre on Nov. 23, 2009, left 58 people dead, including 32 media workers, the highest number of journalists killed in a single incident anywhere in the world.
They were part of a convoy traveling with the wife of Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu who was going to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy.
Mangudadatu’s wife was accompanied by women relatives and friends. They were all killed. Six other civilians who happened to be passing by were also murdered.
Among those still at large is Datu Kanor Ampatuan, who allegedly led armed men in stopping the convoy of the victims and herding them to a hill where they were either gunned down or hacked to death and later buried in mass graves dug up by a backhoe.
Kanor is a first cousin and “best friend” of the primary suspect in the massacre, Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. He was also the “boss” of slain government witness Suwaib Upham, alias “Jesse.”
Roque said that only 120 witnesses, out of the total 520 listed prosecution and defense witnesses, had been presented in court. “So, we’re still at one-fourth in terms of the witnesses to be presented in the case.”
“Every time there’s a new suspect arrested, we have to present again our witnesses so that he could be identified. If you’ve attended the trial, you’d see that we’re presenting familiar faces. There’s no one new,” he said.
Roque said the prosecution also tried to convince Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes to allow 30 major witnesses in the case to testify but only three of them were allowed to take the witness stand due to objections from defense lawyers.
Second trial court
To hasten the trial, Roque urged the Supreme Court to assign another tribunal to hear the numerous petitions, motions, and countermotions filed by prosecution and defense lawyers.
“This is important so that Judge Reyes would be able to focus on the merits of the case and not be burdened by the numerous motions filed by defense lawyers,” Roque said.
He also urged the National Police Commission to rule with finality on the administrative cases filed against policemen involved in the massacre so that the Department of Justice could decide whom to retain in the list of accused.
“We need to trim down the number of accused because with 194 accused, we will not really finish this case,” Roque said.
“Even in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials, there were only 21 defendants although millions were killed in World War II,” he added.
Roque said that the number of accused could be trimmed down to just 35 “primary accused” to hasten the pace of the trial.
“If we don’t improve the current pace of the trial, we won’t finish this in 20 years. It’s going to take us longer,” he said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), in a letter to President Aquino, said it was “deeply disappointed at your lack of meaningful action” on his campaign promise to address the problem of impunity.
The NUJP said the massacre trial was “moving with extraordinary slowness … a mockery that insults the memory of the dead and seriously questions the resolve of the authorities to see that justice is done.”
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, speaking to reporters after meeting with NUJP officials Thursday, blamed “dilatory tactics” of the defense panel for the slow proceedings.
“The problem is the penchant of the defense side to question the presentation of certain witnesses and file petitions in the appellate courts,” De Lima said.
“Considering the unique and unprecedented nature of this case, and the volume of the work still to be done, the speedy disposition of this case depends on the cooperation of all the parties involved,” said Gleo Guerra, acting Supreme Court public information chief.
Giving an update of the trial, Guerra said the trial judge had already held 264 hearing sessions and heard the testimonies of more than 100 witnesses so far.
She said that 35 lawyers, mostly public prosecutors, were actively prosecuting the case, as against 54 defense lawyers.
Hang the masterminds
Guerra said 307 motions and other matters had been filed or raised and that 204 of these had been resolved.
“As a result of these motions, 447 comments, oppositions, rejoinders and manifestations have been additionally filed. To date, the records of the case have reached 148 volumes,” she said.
In February, one of the accused, PO2 Hernani Decipulo, fell to his death at the detention center at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City, where the trial was being conducted. Several witnesses have also been killed.
Editha Tiamson told the Philippine Daily Inquirer Thursday during a break in the hearing held twice a week that she was extremely upset that here had been “zero conviction” in the case that took the life of her husband, Daniel Tiamson, a driver for UNTV.
“The masterminds are already there! These smaller people, those in lower ranks, were just linked and are just as afraid as we are,” Tiamson said.
“We’re fine with just having the masterminds, the Ampatuans, convicted,” she said.
“If we wait for all of them to be arrested and arraigned, how long will that take? Where will we be then?” Tiamson demanded, saying that might even take 200 years. With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, Jaymee T. Gamil and AFP