Gov’t urged to protect massacre witnesses
MANILA, Philippines—The government should offer better protection for witnesses, while the prosecution must get its act together.
These, according to members of several media organizations and a militant group, could very well expedite the trial of suspects in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre and finally bring justice to its victims.
Over 500 members of National Press Club (NPC), Confederation of Asean Journalists (CAJ) and Burgos Media Center (BMC), as well as the activist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan-Metro Manila) gathered at the NPC building in Intramuros on Friday evening to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.
“Another witness was killed just last Tuesday. This shows just how lax the government is in ensuring the safety of the witnesses,” said NPC president Joel Egco, referring to the ambush of former Ampatuan aides Dennis Sakal and Sukarno Butch Saudagal in Cotabato province that left Sakal dead and Saudagal wounded.
The two were on their way to meet with lawyers of Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu to formalize their testimonies when they were gunned down by at least six men in Shariff Aguak.
3 other witnesses killed
Sakal joined at least three other witnesses who were killed in the course of the trial against Andal Ampatuan Sr. and son Andal Ampatuan Jr., who allegedly masterminded the massacre that left 58 people, including 32 members of the media, dead on Nov. 23, 2009.
“Where is the Witness Protection Program? Why does this safety mechanism seem so weak? That is our No. 1 concern,” Egco said.
The lack of unity among members of the prosecution panel is another roadblock in the case, the NPC president said. Tension rose in the panel when public prosecutors decided to rest their case against 28 of the over 100 alleged suspects in the killing, including the younger Ampatuan.
Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III, who was initially appointed head of the prosecution panel, was also accused of accepting bribes from the Ampatuans, along with other public prosecutors.
“The prosecution’s efforts aren’t concerted, which makes it easier for the suspects to manipulate the case especially since they have money,” said Egco. “The reason we are [commemorating the massacre] is to let people know that we are guarding these two key factors—the safety of witnesses and the efficiency of the prosecution.”
After a late afternoon torch parade around the Supreme Court and the justice department, the media groups gathered at the NPC building to light 58 candles for the victims. Musicians, among them Bayang Barrios, Talahib, Musicians for Peace, Gazera, Tabakk and 5-Year Plan held a special concert at the NPC grounds, while poets from KM 64 Poetry Collective read some of their works as a tribute to the victims. Photos and videos of the crime were also shown.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had recently taken over the prosecution panel to personally supervise the progress of the case and help resolve the rift between public and private prosecutors.
“I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt,” said Benny Antiporda, CAJ president, of the justice official. “But it’s been five years. Should I give her another five years [to solve the case]? I don’t think so.”
He added: “They say that justice delayed is justice denied, but in this case, justice isn’t just being delayed—the suspects are trying to kill each and every one of our witnesses, as if waiting for the time when all witnesses would have been eliminated so the suspects can be absolved of their crime.
Antiporda said he had insider information from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology that the Ampatuans were being given VIP treatment inside their cells, including access to mobile phones and the Internet, which most likely helped them arrange for the assassination of witnesses.
The CAJ requested the DOJ to look into this claim.
The NPC was recently included as a member of Task Force Administrative Order 35, a committee headed by Secretary De Lima that looks into extrajudicial killings and violations of human rights.
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