ANDAL Ampatuan Jr., the prime suspect of the notorious Maguindanao massacre, restated his innocence on the gruesome killings at the resumption of the arraignment of the case in Camp Bagong Diwa Wednesday.

Clad in a standard prison shirt, Andal entered his not guilty plea before the sala of Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes for the death of UNTV journalist Victor Nunez, the 57th victim of the massacre.

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Joining him in his appeal were co-accused Mohamad Sangki, Chief Inspector Sukarno Dicay, Police Officer 2 Hernanie Decipulo, Police Officer 2 Saudiar Ulah Police Officer 2 Saudi Pasutan, Police Officer 1 Heinrich Amaba, Police Officer 1 Esprielito Lejarso, Police Officer 1 Rainier Ibus, Inspector Rex Ariel Diongon, Inspector Michael Joy Macaraeg, Police Officer 1 Pia Kamidon, Mohamad Sangki, Chief Inspector Sukarno Dicay, Esmael Canapia, Takpan Dilon, Maot Dumla, and Thong Guimano.

But the court deferred the arraignment of four other accused, namely, Superintendent Abdulwahid Pedtucasan, Abdulgapur Abad, Police Officer 1 Mohammad Balading, and Police Officer 1 Michael Macarongong.

Initially, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed 56 counts of murder against the accused because the body of the 57th victim was not yet recovered. The court already issued the 56 arrest warrants for the 135 accused, all of whom are still at large.

Out of the 197 accused in the massacre, only 62 are detained in Camp Bagong Diwa including members of the powerful Ampatuan clan led by its patriarch, Andal Sr. and former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm) governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

Yellow and Orange

At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Andal’s counsel Sigfrid Fortun took to the floor and asked why some of the accused were wearing orange t-shirts and the other yellow ones.

“Your Honor I would like to ask why there are accused in orange attire and why the other are in yellow?” Fortun asked.

The detainee’s custodian told the court that the ones wearing orange were under the custody of the Philippine National Police (PNP) since last week. They were separated from the rest of the accused due to fear of violent confrontation between those who want to turn state witness.

But Fortun said the jail authorities should have first sought a clearance and order from the court before transferring them to another detention place.

“They should be detained here because the court has yet to resolve that motion,” he added.

Preliminary trial set

The court set the preliminary conference of the case on August 4 at 2 p.m. and the pre-trial (marking of evidence etc) on August 6 at 9 a.m.

Lawyers for both the prosecution and defense also discussed a pending motion by Andal Jr. for the inhibition of Judge Solis-Reyes from the case.

Reyes said she would tackle the motion for inhibition filed against her, the sixth to be filed by the accused, in the next court hearing.

Lawyers slam inhibition plea

In an interview with Sun.Star after the arraignment, lawyer Harry Roque said the new motion lacks merit and is just aimed to delay the proceedings.

“There is no merit in it. I hope the court will throw the motion just like in the past,” he said.

For her part, lawyer Nena Santos, who represented the Mangudadatu family, expressed optimism about the case with the new administration.

“Pasalamat kami na tuloy tuloy na ang pag-usad ng kaso,” Santos said, a point echoed by his client, Maguindanao governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu.

“Masaya kami and I’m praying na mas lalo pang mapabilis ang takbo ng kaso sa administrasyon ni Pangulong Noynoy,” Mangudadatu said. “Sana hindi tumagal ang kasong ito.”

Tight security

Security inside outside and inside Camp Bagong Diwa where the arraignment took place was tight with heavily armed members of the Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) team bearing high-powered firearms.

Operatives of Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) were also deployed around the jail facility.

Cellular phones, laptops, recorders and any other electronic equipment were not allowed inside the courtroom.

Not Ampatuan Boys

Saying they were not “Ampatuan Boys”, several police officers implicated in the massacre said they are prepare to testify against the powerful clan.

In an interview before their arraignment, Chief Inspector Dicay said: "Nag-apply na kami sa DOJ para maging state witness. Labing anim lahat kaming mga pulis na miyembro ng 1508 Police Provincial Mobile Group na handang magtestigo."

“Para lang maresolb ang problema sa Maguindanao gagawin naming ito,” he added.

At the same time, Dicay defended their conduct on the day of the massacre last November saying they have no direct participation in the killings.

"Kami po ang nag-checkpoint sa Masalay, hindi sa Salman kung saan naganap yun. Pero wala kaming ginawa dun. Lahat ng mga pulis dito ay walang kinalaman, biktima lang kami ng pulitika," he said.

A statement issued by the accused police officers said they remained loyal to their organization even as they denied reports of altercation between those accused who want to testify against their colleagues.

"We, policemen, are loyal to the Republic and the Philippine National Police organization. There’s no such thing as Ampatuan loyalists inside as reported in a rumored rumble inside our cell. We are loyalists to the Philippine National Police and not to anybody," the one-page statement given to reporters after the hearing started.

Lawyers altercation

But the development apparently caused a rift between private prosecutors Harry Roque and Nena Santos who engaged in a verbal clash before the start of yesterday’s arraignment.

Santos, counsel of the Mangudadatu family, accused Roque of "harassing" the junior police officers who want to turn state witness.

"Maliliit na pulis ang pinag-iinitan ni Harry kaya dun kami nagkainitan kanina. Dapat ang galit nya ay ki Unsay. Gusto nya i-confront ang mga pulis pero di ako pumayag. Di mangyayari yun over my dead body," Santos added.

Reached for comment, Roque denied harassing the police officers and bemoaned Santos’ statement saying "I will not allow anybody to besmirch my name."

"That’s a strong accusation against a member of the bar. I didn’t harass anybody. How could I harass those police officers," Roque said. (AH/Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)