After 9 years, still no court verdict on massacre case; families dismayed
ZAMBOANGA CITY—Widows and orphans of victims of the Ampatuan massacre are trying to stay strong together and are determined to seek justice in the brutal killing of 58 people nine years ago as they await judgment on members of the powerful clan held responsible for the bloodiest political attack in the country.
“Not a single accused has been convicted …. We are dismayed,” said Emily Lopez, a cousin of Arturo Betia, one of at least 30 media workers who were among those killed.
Lopez said there was talk about the resolution of the case against the Ampatuan brothers—Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., Zaldy and Sajid—and more than 190 others, but no date had been set for a promulgation of the verdict.
“We hope that all principal suspects involved in the crime will already be convicted,” she said. “[But we are] worried [that] these criminals would influence the Duterte administration especially [because] Salvador Panelo, who used to be the lawyer of the Ampatuans, is now the presidential spokesperson.”
Prosecutors said Andal Jr. and armed followers of the Ampatuan clan raked 58 people with gunfire on a hilltop in a remote village of Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province on Nov. 23, 2009.
The victims included the wife, relatives and supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu, then vice mayor of Buluan town, on their way to filing his certificate of candidacy to run against Andal Jr. for the 2010 Maguindanao gubernatorial elections.
Mass grave dug by backhoe
The mutilated bodies of the victims were hastily buried, some still inside their vehicles, in a mass grave dug by a backhoe.
The killing of the media workers on the convoy was the worst attack on journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
A total of 197 people were charged with multiple murder, 18 of them members of the Ampatuan clan. Only 103 are currently undergoing trial because the others are at large.
The alleged mastermind, former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., died of liver cancer in 2015.
Mangudadatu, who is now governor of Maguindanao, called for the immediate conviction of the accused as he expressed anxiety over what he said were moves to absolve members of the Ampatuan clan.
“We want justice now and our endless call is to convict the Ampatuans and their conspirators,” he told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
“We made this call because of the new developments,” Mangudadatu said. “This development is alarming because one of the lawyers of the Ampatuans is now a presidential spokesperson in Malacañang.”
He said there were “disturbing” developments, such as witnesses being enticed with money to recant their testimonies.
“It is a sign of desperation for the accused,” Mangudadatu said.
Widower Elliber Cablitas, a retired police officer, said a year or two after the massacre, he received offers of between P10 million and P20 million to drop the charges.
“I rejected those offers because I would like to pursue and exact justice for what happened. If those offers were made now, I think some families would accept out of desperation, and because it would be more practical to use the money to support the needs of their families,” said the widower of journalist Marites Cablitas of General Santos City-based News Focus.
Closer to ruling
Early this month, Andal Jr.’s defense team filed their formal offer of evidence, bringing the case closer to a ruling. The prosecution panel had filed theirs in 2013.
Nena Santos, the private counsel for the Mangudadatu family, said they expected the court to rule on the case “by early 2019 at the most.”
“Coming up with a decision took a long time because the huge number of the victims and the suspects overwhelmed the court,” Santos said in a radio interview in Zamboanga City early this week.
On the eve of the massacre’s ninth anniversary, several families of the victims welcomed “with renewed vigor and relief” word from acting Prosecutor General Richard Anthony Fadullon that Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 was close to reaching a verdict.
They said the decision on the case would “undoubtedly go down in Philippine history as one of the most significant legal decisions to ever come from our trial courts regardless of the outcome.”
“More than a guilty verdict, we pray for a judgment that will bring a sense of humanity into this dark and regrettable incident,” they said in a statement.
In a press briefing at Malacañang, Panelo responded to a reporter’s question about his past services for the Ampatuan family by saying that people “always speculate” and that courts always rule based on the evidence although “justice grinds so slow.” —WITH REPORTS FROM MARIEJO S. RAMOS AND JULIE M. AURELIO
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