Impunity: Impairing quest for justice

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TWO years after one of the most gruesome incidents sent shockwaves across the globe, justice remains elusive for the families of victims of the Maguindanao Massacre.

On November 23, 2009, 58 individuals, including 32 journalists were killed in the worst case of pre-election violence and mass media killings in the chapters of Philippine history, which happened in Sitio Masalay, barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.

Grace Morales, 35, wife of General Santos-based reporter Rosell Morales of News Focus, recalls the day her husband told her he will be covering and joining the wife of a local politician file her husband’s certificate of candidacy in Maguindanao.


Just like many wives of many media men, thinking it was just the usual coverage, she bid him goodbye not knowing it was the last time she would see her husband.

Because of the massacre, Rosell left Grace to solely take care of their three children aged eight, eleven and thirteen years old.

Adding to the burden of losing a husband, Grace also lost her elder sister, radio anchor and reporter Maritess Cabitas of DxBX radio.

Now, determined to pursue the case together with families of victims of the massacre, Morales can’t help but feel dismayed at the snail-paced trial.

Two years since the massacre, of the principally accused, only Andal Ampatuan Sr. and Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. had been arraigned in court.

Others, like former Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, have yet to be arraigned despite government assigning a Regional Trial Court, Quezon City’s Branch 221, to focus on cases against 196 individuals accused in the massacre.

“How many years do we have to wait to seek justice? Twenty years? Two hundred years? Can this system be reformed? Why is it like this?” Morales queried.

Melanie Pinlac, alerts reporter of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), who had been part of the fact-finding mission initiated by the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) in Ampatuan since 2009, claimed the drag in the court hearings had been a test of patience for most families.

She adds several moves to delay proceedings have been initiated by lawyers of the influential and undeniably affluent Ampatuan clan from petitions of certiorari to motions of bail have been a daily grind for journalists covering the justice beat.

Justice delayed

FFFJ lawyer and counsel to the slain journalists, Prima Quinsayas, explained the delays are happening because the Ampatuan’s lawyers have been doing everything in their capacity to extend proceedings.

Quinsayas added the defense have been filing several petitions for bail - to count up to this date had already reached 40 and several more petitions for certiorari since the start of the case.

A deluge of 20 related cases were also filed against the Ampatuans and their accomplices such as arson, murder, frustrated and attempted murder, malversation, illegal possession of firearms, habeas, numerous certiorari, disbarment, contempt but none of which have been moving in court, she said.

In Unsay’s bail proceedings alone, Quinsayas narrates after presentation of evidence ended last January, the court granted Ampatuan Jr.’s motion to present rebuttal evidence that so far resulted to inundation of motions, majority of which dilatory, to prevent damaging testimonies to be presented against them.

For Quinsayas, it was an uphill struggle for prosecution with the unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to pursue investigation, lack of evidence to prove conspiracies, recanting statements of police witnesses and the failure to place all seized firearms to inventory.

Out of the more than 2000 seized firearms from the Ampatuans, only 200 have been surrendered.

She hurled criticisms back to the criminal justice system of the country, which seems to be outdated with supposed legal remedies.

From the outdated law enforcement procedures like scene of the crime processing to the weak witness protection program, the prosecution had many other reasons for victims of slain journalists to become impatient.

De La Salle University College of Law Dean Manuel Diokno stressed there is an immediate need for the country’s rule of courts, dating back to the 1950s, to be amended if only to address the delays being felt.

Status of media killings

For something as big as the Maguindanao Massacre, one could probably surmise it would take probably years for a decision to be reached.

But for cases of mass media killing in the country, where a lone victim is usually gunned down and a mastermind has always been identified by several witnesses, the same scenario in the courts as the Maguindanao Massacre happens.

CMFR Executive Director Melinda Quntos-De Jesus reports work-related media killings in the country since 1986 has already reached 121. Seventy-nine of which had been committed during the Arroyo administration.

Of the many cases filed in court, she stressed only ten of these cases have resulted to convictions, which only convicted gunmen and not the masterminds.

National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) secretary general Rowena Paraan reports killings of journalists, including non-work related have reached 146 since 1986.

The change of administration either did not help much in finding solutions to media killings, with at least five journalists killed in the Aquino administration, she claimed.

FFFJ notes the Aquino administration has remained silent despite their recommendations, together with the NUJP last April, to show political will to put an end to impunity and to launch the presidential initiatives needed to begin the process of change.

The letter to Aquino states “failure to prosecute the killers of journalists is sending the dangerous signal that, as in the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the killings can continue during your watch without the perpetrators being punished.

That failure will confirm that impunity will continue to reign and those with the means will not stop the use of violence against those they wish to silence.”

As solutions, FFFJ and NUJP suggests creation of multi-sectoral quick response teams to handle media killings and seek an improvement of the disappointing Witness Protection Program - reasons they claim which caused dismissal of cases due to lack of witnesses or concrete evidence against perpetrators.

Until now, the numbers of media killings continue to grow. And the media community, the prosecution lawyers, the families of victims await for the President’s action with continued vigilance.

Together with 23 widows, 85 orphans of journalists killed in the Maguindanao massacre, Grace Morales and her three children, maintained they will never forget and remain hopeful the administration is listening to their plight.

Their only call now is continued vigilance.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on November 23, 2011.

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