Maguindanao Massacre
Image source: Internet

Seven years since 58 people, including 32 journalists, were slaughtered in what has been infamously called “Ampatuan Massacre” or “Maguindanao Massacre,” no one of the 197 accused have been found guilty.

Four of the accused have since died, including the suspected mastermind, then Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. Of the 193 remaining accused, including 28 bearing the name Ampatuan, only 112 are in detention while 81 others have not been arrested. On the seventh year of the bloodiest election-related violence in the country and the worst attack on media men ever, the score remains lopsided in favor of injustice and impunity: 58 dead, 7 years, 0 justice.

Former President Benigno S. Aquino II promised during the presidential campaign to prosecute those responsible, but the entire six years of his term passed without even a single man being convicted of the dastardly crime. And in all those six Aquino years and last months of the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, several witnesses were gunned down and no one of the killers have been arrested.

Following is a privilege speech delivered recently by party-list Rep. Harry Roque, who was a lawyer for the family of one of the victims:

“Exactly seven years ago today, an entourage of 58 persons aboard a convoy of cars and vans were stopped by armed men at a police checkpoint in Karuan, Ampatuan, Maguindanao. They were herded to a remote hill at Sitio Masalay a few kilometers away.

“When they reached the forlorn hill, the 58 captives met a gruesome death in the hands of a blood-thirsty band led by then Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., scion and namesake of the state-backed local despot, Andal Ampatuan Sr., who, in his time, ruled Maguindanao with an iron fist.

“Of the 58 victims, 32 were journalists and media workers; the journalists and media workers joined the convoy to cover an entourage of women relatives of then Buluan town vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu and led by his wife Genalyn.

“They were on their way to the Commission on Election’s office in Shariff Aguak to file the vice mayor’s certificate of candidacy for provincial governor.

“It was a grisly end for the convoy, put to a finis by the private army of strongman Andal Ampatuan Sr. whose son and namesake, “Datu Unsay” Andal Jr., was also vying for the post and did not want to see a rival to the post in Mangudadatu.

“Most of the victims were thrown into nearby pits earlier dug ostensibly for the purpose by a backhoe owned by the provincial government of Maguindanao. When police investigators finally reached the scene many hours later, they also found buried with some the victims in one of the pits a couple of cars from the ill-fated convoy.

“Apparently, there had not been enough time for the murderous band to bury everything — a few bullet-riddled vans belonging to the convoy still stood near the pits, their doors open, mute witnesses to a carnage that could only have happened because the Arroyo administration helped maintain and arm a warlord family for its own political convenience.”

Year after year on the day of the massacre, November 23, journalists and relatives of the victims light candles in the hope that it would move the government to give priority to the resolution of the case and, therefore, show that amid the darkness, the light of justice would eventually prevail.

The Supreme Court reported last year that as of Nov. 23, 2015, the Quezon City Regional Trial Court had “already heard a total of 178 witnesses (93 prosecution witnesses, 27 defense witnesses and 58 private complainants).” How many more witnesses the court needed to hear before it could make a decision?

SC spokesman Theodore Te said the court was at that point wrapping up hearings on the bail petition of suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr. It took the court 5-1/2 years to hear the bail petition? By any standard of justice, that was really slow.

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a Montreal-based network of 104 organizations campaigning for freedom of expression in 65 countries, said last year that the “glacial pace of the [legal] proceedings” of the massacre case was contributing to the “ingrained culture of impunity” in the country. Such a culture of impunity “not only denies justice to the victims of this [massacre] case” but also sows fear in society, hence “muzzles the media and promotes self-censorship,” it added.

Can we expect the wheel of justice to grind faster now? If the administration of President Duterte can’t even show interest in investigating the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and pushers, how can it have the political will to resolve the Maguindanao Massacre? With the lead lawyer of the Ampatuan clan in the massacre trial, Salvador Panelo, having been appointed as presidential legal counsel, doubts have been raised as to whether the Maguindanao Massacre victims will finally get justice soon.

It’s up to Duterte to prove critics and doubters wrong. (valabelgas@aol.com)

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