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The Long and Rugged Road to Justice

The Long and Rugged Road to Justice

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It’s almost like a nightmare that one never wants to encounter again. Yet, in the continuing saga of the Maguindanao massacre, the horror continues to haunt the memory of those affected or concerned with the crime, even in their waking hours. As if the carnage of 57 innocent civilians…32 of them journalists… were not gruesome enough, two prime suspects in the beastly crime were getting their freedom because the country’s Justice Secretary didn’t find “sufficient evidence” to pursue the case against them in a court trial.

In his decision, Justice Secretary Alberto Agra dismissed the murder charges against suspended Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and Mayor Datu Akmad Ampatuan of Mamasapano town of Maguindanao, a remote province in the Philippines, for lack of proof that the two conspired with the accused to commit the crime.

**See other stories on the Maguindanao massacre.**

The secretary said airline tickets, presented as evidence, proved that the governor was in Davao at the time the crime was committed and the list of phone calls made on the date of the incident registered nothing coming from Maguindanao.

In an interview by Manila Times Reporter Ruben Manahan, the Secretary was quoted to have said the following reasons for dropping the case against the two:

“Basic reason is the absence of proof of conspiracy. We used as evidence the Smart Infinity and the Philippine Airlines ticket and a witness’ testimony.

The Smart Infinity phone, the certification from the Philippine Airlines showing that on November 22, 2009, the suspended governor was in Davao City attending the Kanduli meeting with other regional governors, and the words of a witness were proofs that convinced the department of the governor’s innocence of murder.”

On the date of the massacre, November 23, Agra said a Philippine Air Lines certification showed that Zaldy Ampatuan flew to Manila from Davao.”

The Smart Infinity statement showed, according to Agra, indicated that calls were made from Manila to Davao and nothing came from Maguindanao.

The witness certified that the governor was present presence during the meeting and that they flew together to Manila on November 23.

Agra also granted Datu Akmad Ampauan’s petition for review for lack of witnesses to implicated him in the massacre.

“He was not even named by the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] and PNP [Philippine National Police] as a respondent in the case,” Agra said.

Further, Agra said that mere relationship, and having the same name, do not establish conspiracy.” (Manila Times April 18, 2010)

The public raised a howl. Naturally, the families of the victims were almost in near hysteria. Politicians held press conferences and issued press statements condemning the resolution. Journalists held protests and rallies to stress their indignation over the decision.

But one thing that stands out in this plethora of public indignation was the walkout of state prosecutors themselves to dramatize their challenge to acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra’s decision to grant suspended Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and cousin Mayor Akmad Ampatuan liberty.

Their protest was dubbed by a major daily as a mutiny.

Agra seemed to be in sinking sand as more sectors sought for his resignation. His response: “I am at the President’s disposal. I don’t have to resign.” This is a line which is usually used as an escape goat of appointed public officials who find themselves in dire straits.

What brought about the speedy resolution of the case? Hundreds, if not, thousands of other criminal cases remain pending in the Justice Department’s shelves. Not only do these documents gather dust, but those who may be wrongly accused in these piles of papers continue to perish in jails… while some, who may be the real masterminds or triggermen are just walking around, taking the joy of their life going scot-free.

Would the latter possibility be applicable to the Ampatuan cousins?

In a radio interview, Agra insisted he wanted to “unclog” his department’s cabinets of pending cases, so he promptly acted on the massacre case.

Various opinions swirled in the socio-political landscape of a country, whose next presidential elections is going to be held in less than a month.

Presidential candidate Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, son of the late President Cory Aquino, expressed disappointment with the decision and noted the victims and their families were deprived of what very little justice they were at least expecting from the justice system.

His spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, added “the dismissal of the charges and the release of ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and Mamasapano Mayor Akmad Ampatuan was very “convenient” in so far as it allows the two Ampatuans to go back to Maguindanao, where massive electoral fraud has been known to be orchestrated to favor chosen allies of the Ampatuans.

The daughter of incumbent Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Gwendolyn Pimentel, who is running for senator, posed the same theory. “Is this a design prepared by the administration for the coming election?” she asked.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, a lawyers’ organization in the country, apparently made a comment on the dropping of the case against the two Ampatuans. Member and senatorial candidate Alex Lacson said he agrees with his group that “special arrangements may have happened to merit the early exoneration of the two suspects.

Meanwhile, another presidentiable, Senator Manuel Villar appeared to have resigned into accepting Agra’s decision, saying he will just reopen the massacre case if he is elected president of the Republic.

“I am enraged by the decision of the Department of Justice to clear these two members of the Ampatuan clan, which in my mind had been done with unconvincing haste and without credible basis,” he said in a statement.

“The DOJ should have just allowed the courts to clear the two Ampatuans if there was legal basis to do so, instead of deciding on its own and on its level. It gives us the impression that the fight for justice in this case has been lost even before it has begun,” Villar said.

The former Senate President said the families of the victims of the massacre deserve more from the DOJ, which already cleared suspects just five months after the occurrence of the crime.

“This case is not an ordinary one. The gruesome massacre of 57 people – 32 of whom are journalists – is a crime that has angered not only our nation, but the international community as well,” Villar said.

“We expected the DOJ to handle this case with utmost sensitivity and uncompromising resolve. However, its recent decision tells us that it is either being injudicious in its disposition of the case or it is playing its part in frustrating the administration of justice for the families of the victims.”

He said reopening the case against the two Ampatuans would put the recent DOJ decision under review and see if Agra acted beyond the bounds of his duties and responsibilities.

“Again, I will seek the reopening of the murder case against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan if I am elected president. We should ensure that justice is served convincingly and that the DOJ, as government prosecutor in this case, exhaust all means to achieve that end,” Villar stressed.

His vice presidential partner, Senator Loren Legarda, views the situation quite on the contrary. Herself a former broadcast journalist, she is doing what most journalists would do in pursuing a story…only this time, she is pursuing the fight for justice not in the next administration where she may serve as a higher official, but now, under the incumbency of President Arroyo.

She called on the Department of Justice to reconsider its decision to drop the names of the two Ampatuans among the accused in the mass murder of 57 people in Maguindanao last November.

On February 9, 2010, Andal Ampatuan Sr., 25 other members of his family (including Zaldy and Akman Ampatuan), 65 soldiers and police officers, and 106 members of a civilian militia force were charged with 57 counts of murder. The earlier charges against Andal Ampatuan Jr. were amended to include an additional 32 counts of murder.

"Given the political context of this case, the DOJ should have left the courts to decide whether or not to proceed against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan. It shouldn't have initiated the dropping of the case against the two accused, because it sends out the wrong message about how the government is proceeding with the case, it makes it too apparent that it is choosing sides," Legarda said.

According to the lady senator, "this attitude perpetrates the culture of impunity that has made the Philippines the world's deadliest place for journalists. Since the 1980s, we have seen government officials involved in killing journalists getting away scot-free. In many instances, government is doing absolutely nothing about this. And now, the Department of Justice secretary, who is the alter-ego of the President, drops the charges of murder against influential politicians in the worst election-related violence in the country. This is a big blow against our freedom of the press."

Senatorial candidate Adel Tamano, who hails from Mindanao, described the dropping of charges against the two as a “thank you” from the President herself for the help they gave her in the 2004 presidential elections.

Reports note the Ampatuan clan is known to have “delivered” the necessary votes for the President in the 2004 elections where the Chief Executive ran against a favorite actor Fernando Poe Jr., whose popularity no one could have defeated, even when translated into actual votes, according to political analysts and experts. (The actor succumbed to a stroke seven months after the 2004 presidential elections.)

Previously mentioned senatoriable Alex Lacson joined in the call to delay the release of the two suspects while the victims families’ motion for reconsideration is still pending.

He believes there is ample evidence that would merit a formal trial of the case in court, stressing the backhoe retrieved in the crime scene may form part of the prosecutor’s evidence against the Ampatuans.

“The retrieval of a backhoe purportedly owned by the Maguindanao provincial government (because of the markings of ARMM and Maguindanao provincial office found in it) is proof that the suspects may have had a hand in the crime because facilities like those recovered cannot be used without the permission of the local officials,” he said, adding that even freshman law students cannot accept the alibi that the suspects did not get involved in the conspiracy to commit the crime.

For reelectionist Senator Pia Cayetano, who is a lawyer herself, Agra’s decision may constitute dereliction of duty. She maintains a preliminary investigation does not require the presence of “evidence beyond reasonable doubt.”

“Yes, I think, that is a dereliction of duties in that the function of the prosecutor is very different from the function of the trial courts—the weighing of evidence, the complete submission of proof—has to happen during the trial procedure, not during the investigation process and considering that the DOJ (Department of Justice) investigating panel does not share the view of the DOJ Secretary. They really believe that there are other reasons that prompted the secretary to come to this kind of decision,” the lady senator said.

In a press conference, Cayetano “reminded” the Justice Secretary that jurisprudence is very clear on cases like the one at hand.

“A Supreme Court ruling says (State) prosecutors only need to determine whether there is sufficient ground to engender a well-founded belief that a crime has been committed and that the accused is probably guilty thereof. The application of rules on the standard of evidence are not required in this process, but later on during the trial. So by allowing the primary suspect to go scot-free, it is a denial of justice and due process to the victims,” the legislator said.

Cayetano and partymate Susan Ople, who is also running for the Senate, joined thousands of voices in the country in asking “where is justice in the Philippines?.”

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