Justice Secretary Leila de Lima appealed to families of the victims of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre to reject a settlement with the alleged masterminds, saying that any monetary deal would be “legally and morally wrong.”
De Lima said the move of the Ampatuans to enter into an out-of-court settlement with the victims’ relatives was an “implied admission of their guilt.”
The justice secretary was reacting to reports that relatives of 14 massacre victims had nearly dropped murder charges against the accused members of the Ampatuan clan in exchange for a P50-million settlement.
De Lima said she understood the families’ “impatience” and “restlessness” as a result of what she acknowledged as the “slow” proceedings of the trial. But she said the proceedings “continue to move and progress.”
She reiterated that the Aquino administration was targeting under its watch the conviction of those accused of the murder of 58 people, 32 of them journalists. Among the victims were the wife and two sisters of Esmael Mangudadatu, now Maguindanao governor.
De Lima asked the relatives to “refuse temptations” for monetary settlement from the accused Ampatuan members.
“If I may be very straightforward about it, it would be both legally and morally wrong for them to settle with those responsible for the most heinous crime in Philippine history,” De Lima said in a series of text messages to reporters.
Close to 200 people, among them Andal Ampatuan Sr., former governor of Maguindanao, are being tried for the massacre. Two of Ampatuan’s sons—Andal Jr. and Zaldy—are among the accused.
The killings were allegedly carried out to stop Mangudadatu from contesting the 2010 gubernatorial election in Maguindanao.
Imbued with public interest
“May I stress further that the Maguindanao massacre case is more than the private interests of the victims and their families, but one which is imbued with deep public interest. It cannot and should not be bargained away for any amount of money,” she also added.
The justice secretary reminded that the move to settle out of court was “implied admission of the guilt of the accused.”
“If there is a settlement, they should know that,” she said, this time in an ambush interview with reporters.
She said that state prosecutors would never support any settlement with the accused as it is “morally repugnant on our part.”
The justice secretary pointed out that any desistance or waiver to be executed by the victims’ families “at this point will not be binding on the court.”
“Any compromise in a criminal case can only affect the civil liability but not the criminal liability of the accused,” she said, adding “(a)ny waiver of criminal liability is against public policy, hence, null and void.”
De Lima said the “exceptions are in the prosecution of the crimes of adultery, concubinage, seduction, abduction, rape and acts of lasciviousness where pardon by the offended party precludes prosecution thereof.”
It was Harry Roque, lawyer of some of the victims’ relatives, who disclosed in his blog that a number of relatives had considered settling with the Ampatuans.
Roque, chairman of the Center for International Law, said the government’s failure to pay compensation to the families of the victims had made the latter consider a monetary settlement.
He said that had the settlement proceeded, it would clear the Ampatuans of their civil liability.
Malacañang did not agree with Roque’s interpretation that the government had the responsibility, under international law, to indemnify victims of the Maguindanao massacre before the conclusion of the trial.
“He is making it appear that the government had committed the crime [the primary accused were elected officials when the crime happened]. But the government was not one of those (charged),” said deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte.
At a briefing, Valte, a lawyer, doubted the veracity of the P50-million out-of-court settlement that had been dangled before some of the victims’ families, saying other lawyers had denied this.
“So, I don’t know if this is a disconnect between the client and the lawyer. Also, we will defer to the justice department whether it would agree to the interpretation of Mr. Roque on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Valte.
She said that when President Aquino met with the families of the victims, the former offered help, with some concerns immediately referred to certain agencies.
While the willingness of some families of the victims to enter into a settlement may be shocking, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said it was hardly surprising.
NUJP chairperson Rowena Paraan said there were two main factors that made families vulnerable to offers of a settlement: the slow pace of the court trial and the relatives’ lack of income source.
But Paraan said she doubted that any agreement between the parties would have any impact on the criminal aspect of the case as most of the prosecution witnesses had already testified.
Nonetheless, she said, “It would always be the decision of the victims’ families. But whether some of them decide to accept a settlement or not, the search for justice for those killed will continue because many of them will never settle.”—With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and Jeannette I. Andrade