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8 years after Maguindanao massacre, fear still lingers

/ 07:10 AM November 23, 2017

KILLING GROUND Fifty-eight people were gunned down and buried on a hilltop in Ampatuan,
Maguindanao, on Nov. 23, 2009. —INQUIRER PHOTO

AMPATUAN, Maguindanao — Decisions by a court to grant bail to 70 men accused of multiple murder in the Maguindanao massacre case have sown fear and anxiety among relatives of the victims of the worst election violence in the country.

With 32 media workers among the 58 victims of the Nov. 23, 2009, carnage, it was also the worst attack on the press  in the world.

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The group was traveling in a convoy with the wife and relatives of then Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu and heading to Shariff Aguak town in Maguindanao province to file his certificate of candidacy for governor in the May 2010 polls when they were waylaid by armed followers of the Ampatuan clan, including police and militiamen. They were later gunned down on a hilltop.

A total of 198 suspects were tagged in the massacre but only 115 had been arrested, including the alleged mastermind Andal Ampatuan Sr., a former Maguindanao governor who died in July 2015 while confined at National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Quezon City.

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The court decided in separate decisions since trial began in 2010 to grant bail to a total of 70 accused, including 16 police officers.

Justice Now

Emily Lopez, a cousin of slain Periodico Ini reporter Arturo Betia and president of Justice Now, a group representing the family of the slain media workers, expressed fears that if the accused were freed, witnesses might refuse to come out.

“There is fear on our part because of those allowed to get out of jail,” Lopez said.

Since trial began in 2010, at least three witnesses have been killed and two potential witnesses have survived attacks and have refused to testify.

Nena Santos, a lawyer for some of the victims’ families, informed them during a briefing on the court case last week that the accused could walk out of jail anytime once they posted bail.

Bail funds

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Santos said the only reason the accused were still in jail “is that they did not have enough money for bail.”

Only one accused, Sajid Islam Uy Ampatuan, the youngest son of Andal Sr., has been freed on bail. In March 2015, he was able to raise a total of P11.6 million for the P200,000 bail set by the court for each of the 58 counts of murder.

Of the 115 in custody, two had turned state witness and three had been acquitted for lack of evidence, according to Santos.

The remaining 42, who were refused bail, included the principal suspects — former Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., his brother, former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan, and Chief Insp. Sukarno Dicay, the chief of the 15th Regional Mobile Group that was conducting a checkpoint where the victims were stopped by the gunmen.

“I fear for our lives. We have been vocal about the case and there is no assurance that they will not take revenge or commit a crime anew,” said Jemark Duhay, who was only 10 years old when his father, Joy Duhay of Goldstar Daily, was killed along with 31 other media workers.

Killing young dreams

“They did not only kill my dad, they also killed my dreams, my youth. We had to work harder than before so I could go to school,” Duhay said.

He agreed with Lopez that the fear and trauma he experienced eight years ago were coming back after he learned about the possible freedom of 70 of the accused.

Duhay said his father never missed taking him to school but on that day, he left home early for a news coverage.

“We heard the news about the massacre when I was in class. I thought that my dad was covering that incident. It was late at night when I learned that my dad was among those killed,” he said, recalling the unbearable pain his family suffered.

Lopez said that while they were scared of what may come with the release of the accused, the victims’ families also were thankful for the support they continued to receive.

“We are grateful that there is still a lawyer like Santos sticking to the case. We are grateful that the NUJP (National Union of Journalists of the Philippines) stayed on our side, but seeing the numbers of accused freeing themselves from charges, we have this mixed feeling, mostly feeling of fear,” Lopez said.

Continuing the fight

Lawyer Jocelyn Clemente, acting chair of the NUJP, said she was hoping that despite the bad news, the families of the slain media workers would continue to fight for justice.

“The network and communication lines have been strengthened and I hope they will not bog down. We are also looking forward to positive outcome in the court’s upcoming decision,” Clemente added.

Santos said the relatives of the victims expected conviction and the marathon hearings were almost finished. Only the presentation of the last five or 10 accused remained, she said.

“Then there will be a wrap-up, and the judge can resolve the case for everybody, for all accused,” Santos said. —With a report from Edwin Fernandez

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