MANILA, Philippines (5th UPDATE) - Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to the 41 murder charges so far filed against him by the police in connection with the Maguindanao massacre last November 23.
"[He pleaded] Not guilty to all the 41 charges," Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Leila de Lima told reporters outside the building of the Philippine National Police's (PNP) Police Non-Commissioned Officers' Clubhouse inside Camp Crame, where the trial is being held.
During the arraignment, ANC's Patricia Evangelista reported that the murder charges were initially read as they applied to the 41 initial victims of the Maguindanao massacre.
However, after the third murder charges were read, they decided to speed up the process by reading the charges in batches: the first 25 victims first and then the next 16 victims.
"On both [sets] of cases, Andal Ampatuan Jr. pleaded not guilty," Evangelista, an accredited reporter for the trial, said.
Andal Jr. is expected to be slapped with 16 more counts of murder once the paperwork and evidence-gathering are completed.
Before the arraignment, Fortun also claimed that his client could not understand English or Filipino, and that he could only understand Maguindanaoan.
"They were asked if they had a translator, they said no. And then he [Andal Jr.] was asked again if he could understand English or Filipino, and he said he could understand English so they proceeded with the arraignment," Evangelista reported.
Photos, videos presented
After the arraignment, Ampatuan Jr.'s petition for bail started, and the prosecution presented Ricardo Diaz, head of the National Bureau of Investigation's (NBI) anti-terrorism unit.
Diaz presented photos, videos and affidavits in connection with the massacre. Upon cross examination, Ampatuan Jr.'s lawyer, Sigfrid Fortun, argued that the evidence was not relevant. He said none of evidence could be proven since Diaz was not at the scene when the photos and videos were taken.
After Diaz's presentation, prosecutors said they actually prepared only one witness.
Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 then set the next bail hearing on Wednesday, January 13. She also decided to have twice-weekly sessions thereafter.
Prosecutor said they would be presenting 12 witnesses for the petition for bail and gave the names of the 12, which include Buluan Vice-Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu.
Solis asked the prosecution to limit its number of witnesses.
De Lima said the judge asked the prosecution if they could shorten the list of witnesses so as not to prolong the bail hearing. She said the camp of the accused has told the court that it has only 2 witnesses to defend their petition.
De Lima said Ampatuan Jr. looked bored and was yawning all the time during the hearing.
Before the hearing was wrapped up, private lawyers representing the families of the massacre victims made a manifestation, urging Judge Reyes to order the transfer of Ampatuan Jr. from the NBI detention center to the Quezon City Jail.
The families reportedly complained about "the supposed special treatment" of Andal Ampatuan Jr. at the NBI.
De Lima said that judge "noted" the manifestation. She said the judge was expected to act on the manifestation as soon as a formal motion has been filed by the private lawyers headed by Harry Roque.
Burden of proof
Professor Marvic Leonen, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, said the petition for bail would be an opportunity for the Ampatuan Jr.'s camp and the court to take a peek at the evidence of prosecutors.
"This is an opportunity to study the evidence to be presented by the prosecution," Leonen told radio dzMM on Tuesday. He was confident that the prosecution team would not have a hard time presenting evidence for the 41 murder charges.
He said that based on the rules of court, the prosecution team would have to first present their evidence to oppose the petition for bail filed by Ampatuan Jr.
"Sa Saligang Batas natin, kailangan ipakita ng prosecution na ang evidence of guilt is strong (Under the 1987 Constitution, the prosecution needs to prove that the evidence of guilt is strong). The burden is on them to present strong evidence," Leonen said.
He said that because of the unpredictability of how the prosecution team would present its evidence against Ampatuan Jr., and how the defense would react, the petition for bail is expected to prolong the trial.
Ampatuan Jr. arrived Tuesday morning at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame on a bulletproof van.
Live footage of ABS-CBN's Umagang Kay Ganda (UKG) showed the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) convoy leaving its main headquarters in Manila at around 6:15 a.m.
The convoy arrived at Camp Crame in Quezon City around 6:30 a.m., 2 hours earlier than the scheduled hearing at 8:30 a.m.
A radio dzMM report said Buluan town Vice-Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, Maguindanao gubernatorial candidate, arrived at Camp Crame around 8 a.m.. Mangudadatu's wife and two sisters, who were going to file a certificate of candidacy on his behalf, were killed in the incident.
The trial started after Ampatuan Jr. was escorted into the PNP's Police Non-Commissioned Officers' Clubhouse at around 8:32 a.m.
Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera told UKG that the first hearing would tackle the petition for bail filed by the lawyers of Ampatuan Jr. She said the petition forces the government's prosecution team to immediately produce evidence on the multiple murder charges.
"The judge would hear the petition for bail first before conducting the arraignment. The prosecutors would have to present evidence so that the judge will not grant the petition for bail," the justice secretary said.
Devanadera said they will also present statements from various witnesses who have implicated Ampatuan Jr.. She said some witnesses placed Ampatuan Jr. at the crime scene in Barangay Saniag, Ampatuan town, where the 57 bodies of the massacre victims were found in 2 mass graves.
She said she was confident that Judge Reyes would junk Ampatuan Jr.'s petition for bail after 2 hearings.
Test for justice system
The bail hearing is the first step in judicial proceedings that many fear could drag on for years.
"This is something that everyone must monitor every step of the way," said Ramon Casiple, a political analyst with the Institute for Political and Economic Reform.
"What we are facing here is a very strong clan with very strong political connections and the capability to intimidate or even kill witnesses," he told AFP.
"This puts the justice system to a test, because past cases with heavy political overtones have never been satisfactorily concluded."
Casiple cited as an example the trial of former President Joseph Estrada, who was deposed in a military-backed popular revolt in 2001, for massive corruption.
After a marathon six-year trial, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, only to be pardoned and set free by successor Gloria Arroyo.
"At the end of the day, it's still politics talking. And these warlords will not go down quietly," Casiple said.
Some in Ampatuan Jr.'s battery of high-profile lawyers also worked in the Estrada trial, and they are expected to raise technicalities to delay the case, he said.
One judge has already backed out from the explosive case, saying he feared for his life. There have also been calls from prosecutors for the justice department to ensure the safety of witnesses.
Ampatuan Jr. allegedly led 100 of his men in stopping a convoy carrying members of a political rival and journalists on November 23.
The dead were systematically murdered and buried in shallow pits or dumped in grasslands just near the national highway in Maguindanao province, where Amapatuan Jr.'s father and namesake was governor.
Ampatuan Sr. as well as several other clan members were later arrested after martial law was imposed in Maguindanao and charged separately with rebellion.
In her report to Congress defending martial law, Arroyo said those massacred bore "marks of despicable torture, contempt and outrageous torment."
She also said that clan followers had threatened to carry out attacks if their patrons were arrested.
ICG: Arroyo partly to blame
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said last month, however, that Arroyo was partly to blame for the massacre because she had allowed a "local despot to indulge his greed and ambition."
Ampatuan Sr. had controlled Maguindanao province for most of the past decade and was grooming his son to take his place as governor in this May's national elections.
Ampatuan Sr.'s influence and power grew because Arroyo allowed him to maintain a 3,000-strong heavily armed militia as part of a government strategy to contain Muslim separatist insurgents in the south.
In exchange for the support, Ampatuan also helped deliver votes from the province to Arroyo and her candidates in the 2004 election allegedly through cheating.
The shocking crime forced her to cut political ties with the clan, but critics say the Ampatuans may still hold enough political power to avoid the penalties many believe they deserve.
"I have serious doubts about the whole exercise," Harry Roque, chairman of the advocacy group CenterLaw Philippines, who is also a private prosecutor representing the slain journalists, said of the case.
"There is a genuine fear from the victims' families that justice will not be served," he said.
Meanwhile, security in and around the police camp was very tight despite police's assurance that there was no threat on Ampatuan Jr.'s life.
The Supreme Court has also banned the live coverage of the murder trial to avoid "mistrial" due to "trial by publicity."
SC spokesman Midas Marquez said only authorized media personnel will be allowed in the trial venue, and they will only have a photo opportunity with the prime suspect prior to the trial.
Once the trial starts, no cameras will be allowed and no one will be allowed to leave the venue except during recess. -- with reports from dzMM, ANC, Agence France-Presse