Continuing the fight for Ampatuan 58

by  Atty. Melanie Y. Pinlac

THE CONVICTION OF five Ampatuans (Andal Jr. “Datu Unsay”, Zaldy, Anwar Sajid “Datu Ulo”, Anwar “DatuIpi”, Anwar Sr.) and 38 others for planning and executing the November 23, 2009 massacre in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province rekindled hope in the crusade against impunity and injustice in the Philippines. The families and colleagues of the 58 victims waited a decade for the trial court to decide the guilt of the perpetrators behind the killings. The December 19, 2019 promulgation of the 761-page consolidated decision is not the end for the fight for justice for victims of the Ampatuan massacre.

Widows of the victims during the 7th year commemoration of the Ampatuan massacre on November 23, 2016. | CMFR File Photo

Trial continues

The legal battle before Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 continues. The December 2019 decision was partial and only dealt with the charges against 117 out of the 197 named perpetrators. Eighty accused were still at large when the case was submitted for decision in August 2019. The trial for the 80 was temporarily archived pending their arrest.

As of February 2020, four accused — including policemen Baraguir Ysmael and Alfie Pagabangan — have been arrested and arraigned. Their trial already began last February 19, 2020. Meanwhile, there is no news about the arrest of the remaining accused including 15 persons surnamed Ampatuan. 

The trial court has been asked by the prosecution and defense to clarify portions of the decision, including the verdict of Police Superintendent Bahnarin Kamaong whose name appeared in both the list of convicted principals and of acquitted persons. 

Modifiable and Appealable

The decision as to those convicted who exercised their right to appeal within the period allowed by the Rules of Court has yet to become final and executory. During the promulgation, several defense lawyers manifested that their clients would be filing motions for reconsideration or notices of appeals. As of press time, a number of accused including five Ampatuans have filed their appeals or motions for reconsideration. Close monitoring of the appeals process is needed, as there is always the possibility that the conviction of these accused may be overturned by the higher courts.

The 58th victim

Many are awaiting the legal step the family of Midland Review’s Reynaldo Momay will take. The court acquitted all the 101 accused in the murder of Momay. Unlike those of the 57 other victims, Momay’s cadaver was never recovered from the crime scene in November 2009. Efforts to locate his cadaver resulted in the discovery of his alleged dentures, which were identified by his long-time partner and the dental technician who made them. The 58th murder case was then filed in July 2012, almost three years after the massacre.   

The press quickly reported the reaction of the Momay family and their counsels from the Center for International Law.  In a December 19, 2019 report by the ABS-CBN News, lawyer Romel Bagares said that they might appeal the civil aspect of the 58th case.

Journalists and concerned groups gathered for a community mural painting in Mehan Garden and a protest march to Mendiola on November 23, 2019. The activities, led by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), mark the 10th year of the Ampatuan Massacre. Regarded as the worst attack against journalists in history, 58 people, 32 of whom were journalists and media workers, were killed in an incident of election-related violence. Participants shared solidarity messages and called for justice and ending impunity in the country. 

Civil Liabilities

Damages have been awarded to the families of the 57 victims. However, an appeal by the convicted perpetrator will stay the execution of the awards for civil liabilities until it is finally resolved. There has been no news about the actions taken by the prosecution panel nor of the private lawyers regarding the execution of the awards. Under the Rules of Court, the prevailing parties may move for execution pending appeal.

It should also be noted that some private complainants have asked for reconsideration of the damages conferred by the courts. They are seeking an increase in the amount of civil liabilities to be paid by the perpetrators.

Special Treatment

The convicted persons were transferred to the National Bilibid Prison and other penal facilities after the promulgation. The treatment of these convicts should be closely scrutinized: During their confinement in the Quezon City Jail Annex, reports of special treatment of the Ampatuan clan members were reported and criticized in the media. It may happen again while they are serving their sentence in the facilities managed by the Bureau of Corrections.

The media reported the immediate release of the accused who were acquitted in the multiple murder case. Included among those acquitted are Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan, Sajid Islam Ampatuan and at least 31 police officers. These accused were identified by witnesses as having been present during one or all the stages of the planning and execution of the massacre. Fear that witnesses who spoke against these personalities is reasonable. It would be worthwhile to look into where they are now, and what they are doing.

Protecting the Families and Witnesses

The protection of witnesses and their families remains to be a concern after the promulgation of the consolidated partial decision. Witnesses fear retaliation from the Ampatuans. As many are not enrolled in the Department of Justice’s witness protection program, and continue to live in their known communities, they are exposed to possible retaliation and attacks. Some accused who took the witness stand against the Ampatuans — such as the backhoe driver Bong Andal — fear the same. The fact that their testimonies contributed to the conviction have very likely increased their security problems.

Revisiting Off-shot Actions

In January 2015, criminal charges were filed before the Maguindanao provincial prosecutor against 49 individuals including local government officials and police officers for their alleged participation in the planning, execution and cover-up of the Ampatuan massacre. These charges have yet to be resolved by the prosecutor, and their resolution may affect the progress of the trial before the lower court.

Aside from monitoring the developments connected to the multiple murder case, the press could revisit the outcomes of other legal actions related to the massacre, such as the freezing of the assets of the Ampatuan family by the Anti-Money Laundering Council and the decision of the National Police Commission (NAPOLCOM) dismissing from the service several police officers involved in the massacre.

In 2015, the NAPOLCOM dismissed 21 police officers from the service, and placed 11 others under 59-day suspension for their alleged participation in the Massacre. Out of the 21 dismissed officers, three were acquitted in December 2019 and one was discharged as an accused to be a state witness. According to news reports, the Philippine National Police said that the policemen acquitted may apply for reinstatement.

Meanwhile, three policemen convicted in the massacre case were not included in the NAPOLCOM case. These are PO1 Jonathan Engid, PO1 Arnulfo Soriano and Police Senior Inspector Abdulgapor Abad. It remains unknown if they have been officially removed from the service as of this writing. 

It may also be worthwhile to review the implementation of the recommendations by the presidential committee to dismantle private armies created by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in response to the involvement of the Civilian Volunteer Organization members and the private armies of the Ampatuans in the massacre.[1] The demolition of private armies will greatly contribute in preventing another massacre from happening. 

Fighting Impunity

The conviction of the 43 perpetrators in the Ampatuan massacre is a significant step towards achieving justice. But this alone is not enough to change the deeply-rooted culture of impunity in the Philippines. Out of the 167 journalist/media killings since 1986, only a few cases reached the courts and resulted in convictions. The Ampatuan massacre is, in fact, only the fourth case wherein a mastermind was found guilty. A large number of masterminds and killers still roam free, and are emboldened by the government’s lack of political will and apathetic attitude towards human rights and press freedom. 

Vigilant monitoring of the resulting judicial processes, as well as revisiting of relevant actions and incidents related to the massacre, must continue the struggle for holistic justice for all victims.  More than ever, a vigilant and critical press is needed to ensure that the success gained in the fight against impunity will be protected and justice truly served the aggrieved.