Maguindanao massacre trial could take ‘55,000 years’
The day-to-day legal clashes in court may have become more intense and personal but there’s still no end in sight in the trial of close to 200 defendants in connection with the Maguindanao massacre case.
To speed up hearings, private prosecutor Harry Roque has recommended trimming the number of defendants from 196 to just 35 to focus on those who were primarily responsible for the planning and killing two years ago of 57 people, mostly media workers.
He said the other defendants could be charged with lesser offenses. “At the rate we are going, it could take us at least 20 years to finish this,” Roque said.
At present, there are 196 defendants, each of whom are facing 57 cases. “That’s 11,172 cases. And international studies say that it takes five years to try a single case in the Philippines. So that’s 55,000 years,” Roque said.
He said that not everyone responsible was charged with war crimes after World War II. “Let’s just focus on the primary accused . . . the Ampatuan family and those who actually pulled the trigger,” he added.
On the eve of the second anniversary of the massacre, Amnesty International lamented the “very slow wheels of justice.” The London-based group pressed the government to ensure “effective remedy” for the victims and their families, and to “break the continuing impunity.”
A Catholic bishop dared the government to apply to the case the same speed it demonstrated in pursuing criminal charges against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“If they were able to have a speedy resolution on Arroyo’s case overnight, they can also do it with the case involving the Maguindanao massacre,” Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo said over Church-run Radio Veritas.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte assured the public that the Aquino administration had not forgotten about the case and that it hoped that it would be resolved under its watch.
Valte said that when the President last spoke with the relatives of the massacre victims he told them that the government would extend them assistance and that “we will not forget what happened.”
The Maguindanao massacre on Nov. 23, 2009, left 57 people dead, including 32 media workers, in what is considered to be the worst election-related violence in the country’s history. The remains of the 58th victim, a media worker, have yet to be found.
It was also the single incident anywhere around the world with the biggest number of media practitioners being killed, international press organizations pointed out.
The media workers were part of a convoy traveling with the wife of Esmael Mangudadatu who was going to file her husband’s certificate of candidacy. Mangudadatu’s wife was accompanied by women relatives and friends. They were all killed. Six other civilians who happened to be passing by were also killed.
Many at large
Two years after the gruesome murders, not even half of the alleged perpetrators are in jail. Out of the 196 suspects, only 93 have so far been captured by the authorities.
Prosecutors have given to the police the names of around 20 prominent suspects out of the 103 people who are still at large but there is still “no word as to what happened to them.”
Of the 93 detained, 29 have yet to be arraigned, including Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Moreover, 50 of the 64 accused who have been arraigned such as primary suspect former Mayor Andal “Datu Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. have asked the court to allow them to post bail. Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes has yet to rule on their petitions as the court is still hearing arguments.
“Last year, we were delayed for seven or eight months until September because they asked the judge to inhibit herself. We could have presented at least 20 witnesses during that time,” said private prosecutor Nena Santos, a lawyer of the Mangudadatus.
The prosecution has so far presented 72 witnesses out of the “not less than 300 witnesses” it intends to present.
The defense team expects the trial to last 18 years before the judge could finally come out with a ruling, said a defense lawyer, who declined to be identified. He himself is planning to present at least 325 witnesses for his client.
“The Maguindanao massacre case is nothing to sneeze at,” the lawyer said, adding that the public should refrain from pre-judging the case since the defense has not presented its witnesses.
He also pointed out that the 72 witnesses the prosecution had presented were not all for the criminal cases because they included the private complainants testifying on the civil aspect of the case.
In recent weeks, defense lawyers have tried to push for the court to hold actual hearings on Mondays to expedite the cases even if only the private complainants are presented.
3 hearings a week
The court practically holds three hearings a week—motions are heard on Mondays in Quezon City while the actual trial is conducted at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig City, on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Judge Reyes initially favored the proposal after private prosecutor Prima Quimsayas, who represents families of some of the slain media workers, said she could present her clients.
“Monday is open. The court can accommodate the parties should they decide to present private complainants or other incidents,” Reyes said.
However, state prosecutors balked at the defense motion, saying that they would be hard-pressed to hold three days of hearings every week.
“(Quimsayas’) proposal was made on the understanding that other private prosecutors would agree but they have not,” State Prosecutor Peter Medalle told the court.
Other prosecutors say they would be hard-pressed to present witnesses three times a week as they would have to be flown from Mindanao and briefed before they can be presented in court.
State prosecutors also pointed out that they were handling other criminal cases besides the Maguindanao massacre case.
Santos said prosecutors were hoping that witnesses, who had testified and were cross-examined by some of the defense lawyers, would no longer be recalled to be reexamined again by other defense lawyers. However, this would entail amending court rules.
“Our target is to finish presenting the prosecution’s evidence in three years but that depends on the cross examination. We don’t control cross and there are many defense lawyers repeating questions already asked during their own cross,” she said.
Roque went further and said the Supreme Court should look into amending the Rules of Court to allow the lawyers of prominent defendants to present their witnesses once the prosecution wraps up its presentation in a particular case.
“I think we can do this in Unsay’s case and have a ruling in two years. Otherwise, we are not getting anywhere… even if we hold daily hearings,” Roque said.
“We’re bogged down in cross-examination and the witnesses will be recalled all over again,” he added.
Santos said that at least, after the original panel of prosecutors in the case were replaced in April, the prosecution team has been faster in preparing its witnesses.
Judge Reyes has been freed from handling other cases after the Supreme Court this year appointed two pairing judges to assist her—one to handle more than 220 criminal cases and another to try around 200 civil cases.
However, while these cases have been assigned to other judges, their paperwork is still handled by Reyes’ court staff.
The case file of the Maguindanao massacre has reached 38 volumes of pleadings and orders, with documents filed almost everyday. With reports from TJ Burgonio, Jocelyn R. Uy, Christine O. Avendaño and Julie M. Aurelio
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