The Ampatuan brothers Datu Andal Jr and Zaldy were found guilty today of murdering 57 people in the horrible November 23, 2009 massacre in Maguindanao. After a decade long trial, the two were finally convicted at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court, with a reclusion perpetua sentence, or up to 40 years in jail without parole.
I covered the high-profile case since the beginning. It was a tough assignment coming on the heels of my abduction in Sulu in 2008; the massacre having taken place just a year and a half later. It meant going back to Mindanao probing into the affairs of the Ampatuans, whom I had a previous run-in in the elections of 2007. During the midterm elections of that year, I was reporting on allegations of election fraud and the abduction of teachers by the powerful political clan.
Our hotel in Cotabato City was cased by the suspected goons of the family and a message was delivered to me and my news team through an Ampatuan associate, “Get out of Mindanao!”
In other words, I knew what I was up against. With their arsenal of cash and political alliances, the Ampatuans tried all means to escape culpability.
Reporting on attempted bribery, VIP treatment in jail, and uncovering their hidden wealth meant incurring their ire. But as a reporter, you go where the story takes you.
Ampatuan defense counsel Atty. Philip Sigfrid "Sig" Fortun eventually withdrew from the case in 2014. I covered the story until early 2015, and I remember saying often that because of the slow pace of the trial (there were 197 accused) I would retire before I could cover the promulgation of the case. I was subjected to harassment and death threats for reporting on the case which was marked by disagreements on its handling by government and private prosecutors, allegations of bribery, witness tampering, among other things.
With today’s decision, justice was finally attained by the victims’ families — but their wait took so long that it appears to be a pyrrhic victory.Years after I stepped back from field reporting, I still remember the faces, the scenes, the trivia attached to the Ampatuan murder story. Here are some of them:
The defense lawyer Sig Fortun would arrive in a bullet proof Hummer to the hearings in Camp Bagong Diwa bearing the vanity plates of the family patriarch Datu Andal Ampatuan. Fortun eventually withdrew from the case in 2014.
The air-conditioned courtroom in Camp Bagong Diwa used for the hearings was used by the Ampatuans as sleeping quarters and as a sala to receive visitors until the victims’ families and their lawyers found out about it and complained. The jail warden and guards were then relieved of their posts.
Atty. Harry Roque, then a counsel for some of the victims’ families, dramatically running from the courtroom in Camp Crame where hearings were initially held for security reasons. At one particular hearing, videos of the crime scene were being screened showing victims and cars being unearthed. He said he had to run out because he was starting to throw up.
After tight security checks, a short photo opportunity would be allowed for photographers and videographers and then only reporters minus their cellphones would be left inside. They would have to rely on copious notes to cover the hearings. After a couple of years, the hordes of media would dwindle as interest in the trial waned.
One of my notebooks where I took down notes while covering the hearings. It was difficult to cover because of the lengthy trial and aside from taking notes of the testimonies, one wanted to take down the mood, the reactions of the various characters. So the notes were a combination of testimony and personal observations.
One of the key witnesses Lakmodin Saliao who testified in court was a loyal kasambahay of the Ampatuans who escaped from them after two decades and sought the protection of the government and the Mangudadatus. He told me he wanted his story featured in Maala-ala mo Kaya.
It was a woman, Nena Santos, chief counsel of Ismael “Toto” Mangudadatu, who sealed the fate of the Ampatuans. She was able to secure the cooperation of many of the state witnesses to testify. She also opened the lid on a supposed PHP 300 million peso bribery try to scuttle the case and charged a sitting Justice Secretary.
The inscrutable Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes. Her mere acceptance of the case is an act of courage. The massacre case landed in her sala after it was declined by the original judge it was raffled to for safety reasons. She was very softspoken and even tempered. She was difficult to read. What I remember is the loyalty of her court staff and their protectiveness about her.