MANILA -- The prosecution panel in the multiple murder case filed against the Ampatuans in connection with Maguindanao massacre asked a local court Wednesday to cite a lawyer of the accused for contempt.

Also on Wednesday, the lead counsel of massacre prime suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr. filed a motion for recusation, asking Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes to inhibit herself from the case for “committing serious misconduct in disregarding simple evidentiary rules.”

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Ampatuan Jr., his father former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., brother Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm) Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, former acting Maguindanao governor Sajid Ampatuan, Akmad Ampatuan, Anwar Ampatuan and more than 190 others are now charged with 57 counts of murder in connection with the brutal slaying of 57 civilians, including 15 women and 30 media practitioners, in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

In Wednesday’s hearing, Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Richard Anthony Fadullon said Ampatuans’ legal counsel, Philip Pantojan, should explain before the court his absence, considering there is a motion to cite him in contempt.

Pantojan accused Chief Justice Reynato Puno of influencing the Supreme Court to deny all their requests, such as the transfer of the Ampatuans’ rebellion case from Mindanao to Quezon City.

He said Puno and the Mangudadatu family, Ampatuans’ rival, were bonded by their free masonry brotherhood, known to protect their brothers in the organization.

Fadullon said in a separate interview that Pantojan also gave comments to media questioning the credibility of Ampatuan Vice Mayor Rasul Sangki, who testified against the Ampatuans.

The lawyer allegedly said Rasul was a paid witness.

Lawyer Sigfrid Fortun, the legal counsel of Ampatuan Jr., said they have no communication from Pantojan.

A “non-extendible” period of 10 days from February 10 was given by the court for Pantojan to explain his absence and submit his comment on the prosecution’s motion to cite him in contempt.

Inhibition

Fortun, meanwhile, filed the motion for recusation, asking Judge Solis-Reyes to inhibit herself from the case.

“A judge must preserve the trust and faith reposed in him/her by the parties, as an impartial and objective administrator of justice. When he/she exhibits actions that give rise, fairly or unfairly, to perceptions of bias, such faith and confidence are eroded, and he has no choice, but to inhibit himself/herself voluntarily,” read the 20-page motion of Fortun.

He said the “the presiding judge deprived the defense of a viable tool to refute the witness’ statements and to determine his predisposition to tell truths or falsities.”

The defense specifically criticized Solis-Reyes for disallowing the panel to ask questions to Mohammad Sangki for the purpose of highlighting his “conflicting statements.”

Sangki, a member of the Municipal Council of Datu Abdullah Sangki in Maguindanao and uncle of third witness Rasul Sangki, said it was Ampatuan Jr. who carried out the massacre. He also tagged Governor Zaldy as one of the masterminds.

In a separate interview, Fortun said he found “seven bases” for Solis-Reyes to inhibit.

“It's in the transcripts,” he said.

But Nena Santos, lawyer of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu, said Solis-Reyes was in fact "very strict and impartial."

The motion for inhibition will be decided upon by the judge herself.

“Inhibition is solely on the judge. No other parties can ask it...nobody can order her, not even the SC (Supreme Court),” Santos said.

She said if indeed Solis-Reyes will inhibit, the new judge might have different appreciation of the evidences already presented in court.

“Judge Reyes has seen, heard the witnesses when they testified in court. Aside from hearing the testimonies of the witnesses, she was able to observe the gestures, the tone of voice of these witnesses while they were being examined and cross-examined, so she would know if these witnesses are telling the truth or not,” Santos said.

“If there will be a new judge, that new judge will just have to rely on the transcripts of the witnesses' testimonies,” she added.

Delaying tactic

Mangudadatu, for his part, saw the move as a delaying tactic of the defense panel.

“I don't think she will inhibit but it depends on her judgment. But as for me, I don't see any partiality. This is just a delaying tactic,” Mangudadatu said.

The prosecution said it is ready to challenge the defense's motion.

The bail hearing was reset on February 24 to give time for respective lawyers of the 196 other accused to catch up with the proceedings.

Solis-Reyes also deferred the scheduled hearing next week for both camps to file their respective comments or oppositions and rejoinders on four pending motions, including the motion to amend information in light of the consolidation of the cases to be filed against the 196 other accused.

Santos deemed the prosecution's move as appropriate since the defense panel has already "abused the right to due process."

The defense already filed four show-cause orders against the prosecution for speaking to the media.

Santos said Fortun has been lying in court since the beginning of the trial, when he told the court that Ampatuan Jr. could not speak English or Filipino.

Wednesday's hearing was supposed to put into the witness stand two medico-legal officers who autopsied the bodies of the massacre victims and civilian Noh Akil.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recommended in a resolution the filing of 57 counts of murder to Ampatuan Sr. and 196 others in connection with the November 23 massacre.

The Quezon City RTC Branch 221 staff, however, clarified that the respondents, which include 16 Ampatuans, were to be indicted for only 41 counts of murders as the DOJ had yet to rule on the remaining 16 counts.

Ampatuan Jr. pleaded not guilty to the multiple murder charges. His father and other relatives are also facing rebellion charges for allegedly trying to subvert the National Government’s authority in Maguindanao.

The hearing of the rebellion charges was earlier proposed to be transferred to Manila from Cotabato City due to security reasons.

A lawyer of one of the slain journalists’ widows said the government can save money and resources once the multiple murder and rebellion trials on the Ampatuan clan is transferred to Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City from Camp Crame.

“The transfer of the accused is needed because the courtroom could not accommodate them,” Pete Principe told reporters before the start of the trial Wednesday.

He said it would be the prosecutors who will file the motion for transfer of trial before the SC to the said facility.

The Philippine National Police earlier threw its support for the transfer, also citing practicality and security reasons.

Since the hearings started last January 6, the offices of the Finance Service, the management office of the Directorate for Comptrollership, Public Safety Savings and Loans Association Inc., Crime Laboratory and other establishments near the area have to temporarily stop operations to accommodate the said trial.

The respondents were set to face the penalty of reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment if found guilty of the non-bailable crime. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)