MANILA, Philippines?Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. on Tuesday pleaded ?not guilty? to 41 counts of murder filed against him in connection with the massacre of 57 persons in Maguindanao on Nov. 23.
Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes ordered the mayor?s arraignment Tuesday morning before the start of the hearing on his petition for bail, as suggested by government prosecutors. Senior State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon pointed out that the bail petition could not be heard unless Ampatuan Jr. was arraigned first.
A collective hiss was heard in the courtroom when defense lawyer Sigfrid Fortun expressed doubt his client Ampatuan would understand the criminal charges filed against him if they were read in English.
?He only speaks Maguindanaon ? and currently we do not have our own interpreter,? Fortun told Judge Reyes.
The hiss rose to loud murmurs when Fortun volunteered to ask his client if he ?understands Tagalog.?
The judge corrected Fortun, telling him to ask Ampatuan whether he ?understands Filipino.?
After a quick huddle with his client, Fortun announced that Ampatuan was ?willing? to have the charges read to him in English.
Ampatuan eventually pleaded ?not guilty? to the 41 counts of murder filed against him in two batches in the Cotabato City Regional Trial Court late last year.
The clerk of court separately read the existing information filed against Ampatuan in connection with the murders of Genalin Mangudadatu, wife of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael ?Toto? Mangudadatu, and her sisters-in-law Bai Farina and Bai Eden.
The three women, along with other women, lawyers, journalists and media workers, were in a convoy heading to the Commission on Elections office in Shariff Aguak to submit the vice mayor?s certificate of candidacy for governor in the May elections when they were ambushed and killed.
To these three charges, Ampatuan pleaded ?not guilty? thrice while standing before Reyes beside Fortun.
The reading of the information for the three cases alone took the clerk of court some 10 minutes.
This prompted Fortun to request that ?all the existing information [for all 41 cases be read] in one fell swoop by reciting [only] the criminal case numbers, the names and the body of information? of the two batches of cases filed against Ampatuan.
Mindanao-based prosecutors filed 25 counts of murder against Ampatuan in the Cotabato City RTC on Nov. 27, and another 16 counts of murder on Dec. 14.
After the names of the rest of the victims in the first batch were read, Ampatuan entered a fourth ?not guilty? plea.
He pleaded thus a fifth time after the clerk of court read the information contained in the second batch of 16 murder charges.
Senior State Prosecutor Fadullon said his panel ?reserves the right to rearraign? Ampatuan ?when the balance of information is received by the court since only 41 informations have been filed so far.?
Fadullon presented lawyer Ricardo Diaz, antiterrorism chief of the National Bureau of Investigation, as the prosecution?s first witness against Ampatuan?s bail petition.
Among the evidence that Diaz recognized were five affidavits submitted by eyewitnesses, various medico-legal documents, autopsy reports by NBI officers, as well as photographs taken at the massacre site.
Fortun questioned these documents, saying these stipulated ?as to existence but not as to truth.?
Fadullon then introduced a flash drive in Diaz?s possession that the latter claimed was surrendered to him by Col. Medardo Geslani, formerly of the 64th Infantry Battalion.
The prosecutor said the flash drive contained ?30 to 40 photographs? taken immediately by those who first arrived at the scene of the crime.
Fortun questioned the content of the flash drive claiming it was ?inauthentic evidence.? He pointed out that the flash drive was ?simply handed to? Diaz and that the NBI official was not the one who took pictures at the site.
Fadullon then queried Diaz about how Ampatuan?s inquest was conducted in the General Santos City International Airport.
In at least two instances, Fortun objected to Fadullon?s line of questioning saying he did not see the relevance of Diaz?s answers to Ampatuan?s bail petition.
Following a 10-minute conference, prosecution and defense panels agreed to attend hearings on Jan. 13 and 20, and twice in a week after that.
Vice Mayor Mangudadatu arrived at the courtroom shortly before 8 a.m. accompanied by bodyguards in civilian clothes. He sat behind Dante Jimenez of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC).
A calm Mangudadatu told reporters that he viewed the first hearing of the case against his political rival the first step toward his own peace: ?Ito ang simula ng ating kapayapaan.?
He said he was still hurting from the loss of his wife and wished that the Ampatuans would change their ways or show remorse.
?I would like to tell them, magbago na sila. What they have done is enough; so many people have died and gotten involved,? he said.
At around 8:20 a.m., Judge Reyes arrived with a phalanx of police escorts. It was only at this point that the Philippine National Police seal was removed from behind the rostrum and replaced with that of the Quezon City RTC.
Police officers locked the door to the courtroom after 10 minutes, but opened it a few minutes later to let in Leila de Lima, chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
Camera bulbs flashed and a murmur rose from spectators as NBI agents led Ampatuan out of a chamber behind the rostrum.
Wearing faded denims and a short-sleeved shirt with red and white stripes, Ampatuan appeared bored and oblivious to the crowd.
He was led to his seat at the front row to the left of the rostrum, and NBI agents and policemen quickly surrounded him.
After the photo taking, police officers steered photographers and cameramen out of the courtroom.
Earlier, Mangudadatu said he could not help but feel pain at the thought of seeing Ampatuan again in person.
?I am only human, after all. It still hurts; I still have a heavy feeling in me ? But as long as he is not being given VIP treatment, I let the court decide,? Mangudadatu said.
Judge Reyes, who had earlier reaped praise for taking on the multiple murder case, got more praise on Tuesday.
?I think the judge did a good job. She looked brave in her stance,? CHR Chair De Lima told the Inquirer.
De Lima, a former election lawyer who attended the hearing as an observer, said Reyes ?appeared relaxed.?
?Although there was no heated [confrontations] yet, it?s good that the trial went well,? she said.
The VACC?s Jimenez cited Reyes for giving equal chance to the prosecution and defense panels to present their arguments regarding Ampatuan?s petition for bail.
Jimenez said the judge showed ?good control of the situation.?
?We are very satisfied with the judge. I?m pretty sure she will proceed with the trial proper of the case and set aside the bail petition,? he said.
Chief Supt. Elmo San Diego, director of the Quezon City Police District, said Reyes was ?cool, calm and brave? and found her security detail too much.
?The judge continues to resist police protection, and commented that the security measures provided her was an overkill,? San Diego told the Inquirer on the phone.
?But we will continue to provide protection, whether she likes it or not,? he added.
San Diego led Reyes? security force Tuesday ?to personally check the details and possible weaknesses, and how we can improve the security measures.?
He said he planned to add more police escorts on the trip to Camp Crame from the judge?s house and back, in order to speed up Reyes? travel time
Glena Legarta, 36, could barely contain her emotions when the inevitable encounter with Ampatuan occurred Tuesday.
She said that since her husband, Peryodiko Ini reporter Bienvenido Legarta, was killed in Maguindanao, she had repeatedly told herself to be calm if she must come face to face with the man accused of leading the Nov. 23 mass murder.
But when she saw Ampatuan, she said tearfully, ?I wanted to hit him. I wanted to approach him and ask him why he did not spare my husband?s life.?
Along with other bereaved kin and their lawyers, Legarta traveled from Koronadal City to attend the hearing.
She said she never thought her husband would meet such a gruesome end.
?My husband was a good man and a loving father. He did not have anything to do with the political bickering of the Ampatuans and Mangudadatus,? she said.
Noemi Parcon, the widow of Prontiera News publisher Joel Parcon, also admitted that she almost lost her cool when she saw Ampatuan in the courtroom.
She said that if not for the presence of policemen and court officials, she could have shouted invectives ?straight at his face.?
Said Parcon: ?We are educated people, unlike him. I?d rather respect the judge and the rules of court than stoop down to his level.? With reports from Julie M. Aurelio and Nancy C. Carvajal