OPINION: Has justice really been served?

Marie Yuvienco

Posted at Dec 23 2019 09:28 PM

Nothing less than a conviction in the Maguindanao massacre trial of the masterminds behind the worst instance of election-related violence in the Philippines would have satisfied the ends of justice. 

Since the massacre, which claimed the lives of at least 57 men and women, including 32 journalists and whose 10th anniversary was observed last November 23, two presidents of the Republic have been elected, five individuals have been appointed Chief Justice, all in the space of nine yearssince the case started on September 8,2010. 

Within that time, some 7,000 are thought to have been killed after typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Visayas in 2013, another massacre in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 2015 claimed the lives of 44 members of the Philippine National Police and an estimated 20,000 Filipinos, according to humang rights monitors, are estimated to have been killed extrajudicially in the government’s anti-illegal drugs initiative. 

Against that backdrop, Andal Ampatuan Sr. died in detention at the age of 74, the children of the 57 victims of the Maguindanao massacre grew up, the headlines moved on and Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, the judge to whose care the crimial cases were re-raffled (the judge originally assigned to handle them refused to hear them, citing fears of his and his family’s safety), presided over 424 trial days, heard 357 witnesses and studied 238 volumes of records before concluding that Andal Ampatuan Jr., Zaldy Ampatuan and 41 others were guilty beyond reasonable doubt of 57 counts of murder.

Of the 43 convicted as principals, 28 including members of the Ampatuan political dynasty, were sentenced to suffer reclusion perpetua, or imprisonment of 40 years, witbout possibility of parole. (Legally, reclusion perpetua is not synonymous with life imprisonment, which carries no time period.) 

On the other hand, 15 others were pronounced guilty as accessories and sentenced to six to 10 years of imprisonment. The same 761-page decision acquitted 56 others and dismissed what would have been a 58th count for murder. 

Reynaldo Momay, a 61-year old photojournalist, was part of the convoy that accompanied Genalyn Mangudadatu on her way to the Commission on Elections to file her husband Esmael’s certificate of candidacy for the June 2010 national and local elections when they were ambushed by forces loyal to the Ampatuan family; his body was never found and he is missing to this day. 

The only evidence presented by the prosecution—a set of dentures allegedly belonging to Momay—to prove his murder was discredited by the trial court as insufficient to prove the fact of his death. In the meantime, of the 197 accused, 80 suspects remain at large.

Initially, it was thought that trial of the 58 cases of murder would consume 200 years—surely an exaggeration but not really, considering the number of victims, the number of accused actually in custody, the number of witnesses to be presented then examined on direct, cross, re-cross and re-direct, the number of motions and pleadings expected to be filed, some legit and others dilatory, and the general pace by which trials proceed in the Philippines. 

That the trial took only as long as it did, to culminate in a partial decision, is a wonder and a mercy, but justice is far from served: those convicted, through their lawyers, have signified their intent to file motions for reconsideration or new trial, as the case may be, and if these are denied, to exercise their right to appeal.

The thing about appeals is that no one can assure how long the process will take. Although the Constitution lays down rules regarding the length of time courts must render decisions, these are not always observed. One comes across cases that have been sleeping in the dockets for years because of unresolved appeals and incidents, although one suspects that in exceptional cases such as the Maguindanao massacre, the wheels might move more quickly. 

Justice delayed, after all, is justice denied, and while this tenet should apply indiscriminately to cases of whatever nature, the demands of justice are particularly strong in such high-profile tragedies.

But why is there no closure despite the conviction of the 43 accused? To think that the families of the victims have been given some sense of finality, that their suffering is over, is to overlook the bigger picture. In 1987, after the Constitution took effect, it set forth a policy of abolishing political dynasties as inimical to the Filipino people’s interest. 

Dynasties greatly limit the people’s participation in public service because it entrenches power in the hands of certain families. The Ampatuans are just one of numerous political dynasties operating in the Philippines, and to this day, no law has been enacted to prohibit, much less regulate, the practice.

As long as this status quo persists, massacres similar to Maguindanao will repeat themselves.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.