By Perry Diaz
Finally, after more than 10 years of trial, the judge in the Maguindanao Massacre has reached a verdict for three of the defendants – sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Three brothers, Zaldy Ampatuan, Sajid Ampatuan, and Andal Ampatuan, Jr., were sentenced for the killings of 57 people on November 23, 2009, in the province of Maguindanao in Mindanao. Three other members of the clan – Anwar Ampatuan Sr, Anwar Ampatuan Jr, and Anwar Sajid Ampatuan were also found guilty.
Most of the victims were journalists and media workers, and others were family members and supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu, a gubernatorial candidate and rival of the ruling Ampatuan family dynasty at that time. Reporters Without Borders called it the biggest massacre of journalists in history.
Maguindanao is a bedrock of political violence where family dynasties maintain private armies to protect their territories. The Ampatuan family had long controlled the Maguindanao region and the emergence of the Mangudadatu clan posed a challenge to their hold on power. Esmael Mangudadatu was then the mayor of the town of Buluan when the massacre occurred. He and his wife, two sisters, family members, aides, supporters, and journalists were on their way to file his candidacy for governor when they were ambushed and massacred. Mangudadatu told reporters that his wife Genalyn was able to call him just before she was killed. She said they had been stopped by 100 uniformed armed men… then her line got cut off.
Andal Ampatuan Jr. was also running for governor. He was charged of masterminding the massacre. The incumbent governor at the time was Andal Ampatuan Sr., his father. Andal Sr. was also charged with the murders, but he died in 2015 while the case was pending.
Esmael Mangudadatu came from a family of politicians. His father was Pua Mangudadatu, president of the “Magnificent 7,” a group of influential politicians in the province at the time.
It was reported in the news that “only 28 people were convicted for 57 counts of murder for the 2009 Ampatuan massacre. The 28 were sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or a maximum of 40 years without parole. A total of 56 people, including Maguindanao town mayor Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan were acquitted. Another 51 were acquitted due to reasonable doubt. About 80 remain at large and are believed to be hiding in Mindanao and are likely to be still working with the Ampatuan clan.
Although the case is far from over, getting a guilty verdict at the lower court is an achievement in itself. Considering the roadblocks faced by the court, including witnesses getting killed and money offered by the defense to withdraw from the case, the trial judge ought to be commended.
Obviously, the case will go to the Court of Appeals, where it is expected to encounter more roadblocks. And this is where technicalities will be invoked putting the case in jeopardy. It won’t surprise anyone if the case would be stuck in virtual limbo for another 10 years and eventually end in acquittal due to technicalities.
Most causes of dismissal in the Court of Appeals is “insufficiency of evidence”? Does this mean that evidence is treated differently in both lower and appeals courts where in the lower court it was deemed sufficient and insufficient in the Court of Appeals?
A case in point is the recently dismissed forfeiture case against the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos due to insufficiency of evidence. The Fourth Division of the anti-graft court, Sandiganbayan, dismissed the forfeiture case against Marcos, his wife Imelda and children Sen. Imee Marcos, former Sen. Bongbong Marcos and Irene Marcos Araneta; and Constante Rubio, the family’s “confidante,” due to the Philippine Commission on Good Governance’s (PCGG) failure to “prove its allegations by preponderance of evidence.”
The case was originally filed in 1987 that sought to recover P200 billion worth of ill-gotten wealth allegedly amassed by the Marcoses during martial law. This case is the latest in the consecutive losses the PCGG suffered at the Sandiganbayan due to insufficiency of evidence.
But the reason why the “insufficiency of evidence” came about was the inadmissibility of the documentary evidence that were photocopies. So, for 32 years the Sandiganbayan did not rule against the Marcoses only because the PCGG wasn’t able to produce the original documents? Whoa! That doesn’t make sense. Didn’t Sandiganbayan know that the documents were photocopies, which makes one wonder: Did the prosecutors know that their case was in danger of being dismissed? This case was the fourth forfeiture case against the Marcoses. The cases were dismissed because the defendants failed to present evidence that the assets were illegally amassed. So now, the Marcoses got to keep the P200-billion assets, which in all likelihood were ill-gotten simply because they didn’t have the means to have acquired these assets in the first place.
Now that the Maguindanao massacre masterminds have been found guilty by a lower court, the case goes to the Court of Appeals, which would review the case. I wouldn’t be surprised if the appeals court would rule that there was “insufficiency of evidence,” given the propensity of the judicial system in dealing with documentary evidence.
So, for now, let’s see how the Court of Appeals would deal with the anticipated challenges by the convicted perpetrators. Indeed, the Maguindanao Massacre faces reversal in the Appeals Court that would set the accused free. Let’s hope this will not happen.