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As Ampatuan massacre decision nears, flashback of clan’s abuses comes to view

SHARIFF AGUAK, MAGUINDANAO—-At the bus depot here where he drives a habal-habal, or motorcycle-for-hire, Musa Notma, in his 30s, recalled how a decade ago the private army of the powerful Ampatuan clan harassed his family in Tapikan, a small farming village here.

“They burned (my) relatives’ homes. The reason? They wanted to get our small land,” he told the Inquirer on Wednesday (Dec. 18).

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Notma said the clan’s comeuppance for its barbaric ways could come on Thursday (Dec. 19).

Notma said he will be among those who will follow the promulgation of the court’s ruling on the Maguindanao massacre case on Thursday, preparing to rejoice for what he expects to be a guilty verdict against the Ampatuans who masterminded and led the Nov. 23, 2009 slaughter of 58 people, 32 of them journalists and media workers.

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“Deep inside, I know (that) tomorrow, justice is ours,” Notma said.

Notma’s outspoken emotion is not common among townsfolk 10 years ago. This town, which used to be Maguindanao’s provincial capital during the Ampatuan reign, is the clan’s stronghold.

Once named Maganoy, the town hosts the gated posh residences of the clan’s key personalities, and also of their henchmen, not far from the province’s lavish seat of power.

“They deserve (it) if the court rules against them. During their time, they killed a lot of people,” said 35-year-old fish vendor Tayan Mustafa.

The Nov. 23 slaughter came about because then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu refused to give up an aspiration to bag Maguindanao’s gubernatorial seat during the 2010 elections, an ambition that would pit him against the namesake of clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., Andal Jr., also known as Datu Unsay.

Based on testimony of witnesses, the decision to kill Mangudadatu was firmed up four months before the mass murder. But on that fateful day, Mangudadatu sent his wife and relatives to file his gubernatorial candidacy at the Provincial Election Office here.

The slain media workers were part of the Mangudadatu convoy, out to cover a historic unfolding of events in the conflict-racked province.

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The victims were waylaid on the national highway, brought to Masalay Hills in Ampatuan town, gunned down and their bodies dumped in hastily dug common graves.

The massacre was the worst election-related violence in the country’s history and the deadliest attack on the press.

Datu Unsay was there to oversee the execution of the clan’s plot.

Mangudadatu, now Maguindanao representative in the House, said he hoped Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 211 will rule in favor of the victims.

“We hope it will be her Christmas gift to us for waiting a decade for elusive justice. But finally, tomorrow, we hope it will give joy to all the victims’ families,” he added.

Mangudadatu expressed confidence that a guilty verdict would be handed down when the court rules on the case on Thursday.

“Yes, we are confident of a guilty verdict… but not all, because we know who has a strong case. There are others who don’t have established evidence of conspiracy,” Mangudadatu said.

“They should pay for this. If there was death penalty (the better), but I don’t think it will be passed soon. But they need to pay for this because what they have done in Maguindanao is too much,” he said.

But fear and indifference continued to afflict several other residents of this town, preferring to be oblivious of events.

Ibrahim Adil, 40, a fruit vendor at the town’s public market, shrugged off when asked what he feels now that the Maguindanao massacre trial is coming to an end.

“We are not affected, whatever the results. I just want to continue working to feed my family,” Adil said in the vernacular.

Babo Sulayman, a Muslim eatery owner, was reluctant to admit her mixed feelings.

“What I wish is truth and justice for all the victims and the perpetrators,” she said in a soft voice to prevent people in the eatery from hearing her comments.

“After this, I hope good news about Shariff Aguak will also come out often, not the bad news,” Sulayman added in the vernacular.

Efforts to reach Mayor Sajid Ampatuan, of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, one of the principal accused but out on bail, proved futile. His secretary said he was on official travel.

Close relatives of Andal Ampatuan Sr., including those by affinity, refused to grant requests for interviews.

On Thursday, civil servants would be on a holiday in observance of Shariff Kabunsuan Day. Shariff Kabunsuan is a local hero.

Ivy Maravilla, wife of the slain Bombo Radyo reporter Bart, expected a guilty verdict for all the accused.

Speaking to reporters here, Maravilla expressed hope the decision will favor the victims “so justice will be served and the perpetrators rot in jail.”

Emily Lopez, president of Justice Now Movement, a group composed of families and relatives of journalist-victims of the massacre, said everybody was hoping for a guilty verdict but was prepared for another round of battle if the court decision favored the accused.

Lopez said the group was ready to take the case to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, if need be.

“There’s an overwhelming evidence that will pin down the accused Ampatuan clan members for the carnage,” she said.

Marino Ridao, university professor and weekly newspaper columnist, said he would have wanted to be present at the announcement of the court’s findings but decided to just watch it on television due to health reasons.

Ridao’s son Anthony, a government employee, was driving his car heading to Cotabato City when he fell behind the Mangudadatu convoy as it was flagged down along the national highway.

“My son was in the wrong place at a wrong time,” the 90-year-old Ridao said of his son.  “He was not a journalist, not included in the Mangudadatu convoy.”

Life in Shariff Aguak and Ampatuan towns in Maguindanao remained largely normal since the mass murder 10 years ago.

Bangsamoro Interior Minister Naguib Sinarimbo said whatever the decision may be, he expected the Ampatuan relatives to respect it.

Sinarimbo said as the promulgation was being awaited, though, the regional police had not monitored any unusual activity or signs that violence would erupt in the province that the Ampatuans once held in their hands.

“So far, everything seems good,” Sinarimbo told reporters in Cotabato City, adding that authorities continued to monitor the situation and coordinate with police in the province and towns.

On Thursday morning, families of the media workers killed in the mass murder, who failed to travel to Metro Manila to personally witness the promulgation, will gather at the Saint Paul of the Cross Novitiate church here.

Kath Cortez, of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the families will offer Mass prior to the promulgation, which was set to start at 9 a.m.

After Mass, the families will watch the live television coverage of the promulgation also at the church, Cortez added.

Majority of the slain media workers were from this city.  With Bong Sarmiento

Edited by TSB

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TAGS: Ampatuan, journalists, Killings, Maguindanao, Massacre
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