MANILA, Philippines (Update 2) - A hit man who participated in the gruesome Maguindanao massacre that killed 57 people last November 23 was murdered earlier this month before he could be admitted to the Department of Justice (DOJ) witness protection program.
Suwaid Upham, who was interviewed under the name "Jesse" by TV network Al Jazeera, was scheduled to return to Manila to apply to become state witness under the new justice secretary. Before he could get here, he was shot dead in Parang, Maguindanao last June 14.
Prof. Harry Roque, whose law firm represents 14 media victims of the massacre, said Upham was possibly the strongest witness in the case since he was one of 7 gunmen who actually participated in the crime.
"He could have been the strongest witness. It would have been perfect especially now that faith and confidence in the Department of Justice (DOJ) is being restored with the entry of Leila de Lima as justice secretary. However, it was too late for this particular witness," he told abs-cbnNEWS.com.
"It's unfortunate that this murdered witness will no longer do any good as far as the prosecution is concerned. I hope that this becomes a trigger for us to reform the witness protection program of the DOJ," he added.
A Malacañang spokesman, meanwhile, expressed outrage upon learning the news and said the government will launch a manhunt for Upham's killers.
"We are outraged by this latest development in the Maguindanao case. We have directed our security forces to take all necessary measures to apprehend the perpetrators, utilizing all the special powers available under the state of emergency that the President declared and continues to maintain in the province," deputy Presidential spokesman Gary Olivar told reporters.
In his March interview with Al Jazeera, Upham said he was one of 7 gunmen who used high-powered firearms to kill the massacre victims in a hilly portion of Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman. He said the 7 included himself, Datu Unsay Andal Ampatuan Jr., Datu Kanor, Datu Ban, Datu Mama, a certain Kudja, and a police officer whom he knew to be Police Officer 1 Ando Masukat.
Upham said it was Ampatuan Jr. himself who shot Genalyn Mangudadatu, wife of his rival Toto Mangudadatu, using a baby M203 rifle grenade launcher. He said that after the massacre, Ampatuan Jr. called up his father, former Maguindanao governor Ampatuan Sr., to send a backhoe so they could bury the bodies.
At least 57 people were killed in the massacre, which is considered the worst case of election-related violence in the country's history. Close to 200 people have been implicated in the murders including key members of the Ampatuan clan.
Upham said he went into hiding after Ampatuan Jr. had ordered the murders of several witnesses in the massacre. He said he left an Ampatuan safehouse last January after Datu Unsay placed a $45,000 bounty on his head.
DOJ wouldn't take him
Roque said Upham met with Commission on Human Rights chairwoman Leila de Lima last March 2 before his interview with media outfits. There, he revealed that he was the personal bodyguard of Datu Kanor, best friend and cousin of Datu Unsay.
He said his office coordinated with the DOJ if Upham could enter the witness protection program. He added, however, that the DOJ personnel never arrived at the agreed time and date of the interview at the office of CHR chairwoman de Lima. Instead, the justice department asked Upham to go directly to the DOJ.
"He did not want to go to the DOJ because he heard from his superiors [the Ampatuans] that they had great influence in the DOJ," Roque said.
Roque said Upham stayed in Manila from March to April, hoping that the justice department would take up his offer to become state witness. He said the gunman returned to Maguindanao when it became apparent that the DOJ would not give him protection.
"He came to Manila hoping to enter the witness protection program and left disillusioned. That's why we became immaterial," he said.
Roque condemned the DOJ for failing to utilize Upham as a witness in the case. He noted that after rejecting Upham as a witness, Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra issued a controversial resolution that virtually exonerated Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan in the massacre case since they were not in Maguindanao when the crime occurred.
The decision raised a firestorm of protests and would later be reversed by Agra himself.
Roque won't coordinate with DOJ
For his part, Agra said it was Roque's fault that the new witness was killed while in hiding in Maguindanao.
In a text message to ABS-CBN, Agra said Roque "never respected the authority of the public prosecutors."
"The public prosecutors have control over private prosecutors, not the other way around. He never brought 'Jesse' for interview and evaluation before the prosecutors. How can that person be placed under the witness protection program? Roque even represents the victims and 1 of the killers," Agra said, referring to Upham.
Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon said the DOJ wanted to meet Jesse (Upham) at least twice, but the venues and schedules of the meetings were changed by Roque's group without warning.
"Roque would change the schedule suddenly and this prompted the witness protection program director to just invite them to the DOJ," he said.
He said the DOJ usually interviews and validates the testimony of any person who offers to turn state witness. "We have to make sure that they are not Trojan horses," he said.
Fadullon denied that Upham could have been the strongest witness in the case, noting that Roque is not representing all of the victims in the massacre and does not know all of the government witnesses.
Other witnesses could back out
Roque said that before Upham's death, the triggerman was excited to go back to Manila after hearing news that a new justice secretary would be appointed by President-elect Benigno Aquino III.
"He couldn't forget Leila de Lima. He said she was really OK," he said.
He said Upham's death might discourage other witnesses from coming forward and presenting their testimonies.
He said the testimony of Lakmodin "Laks" Saliao, an aide of the former Maguindanao governor, could also be helpful in the case since it corroborates Upham's statement that Andal Sr. was ordering the murders of other witnesses in the massacre.
He said, however, that Saliao was not actually present at the massacre scene when it occurred.
Saliao earlier claimed that he was present in meetings where the Ampatuans plotted the Nov. 23, 2009 massacre. He said he was at the side of Ampatuan Sr. during the day of the massacre and overheard the former governor's radio conversation with his son and namesake Ampatuan Jr.
He also said the Ampatuan patriarch continues to give out orders to their supporters by calling them on his cellular phone.
Fadullon, meanwhile, said the DOJ will have to cross-examine Saliao and validate his testimony. "Everytime a new witness comes out, we cannot immediately take him in and use him. We decide after validation to determine if he is telling the truth and his motives," he told radio dzMM
He said it was the first time that a real inside man has expressed willingness to stand witness against the members of the powerful political clan.
"This is the first time that someone from the inside is coming out and telling us what he knows. This is important because this is inside information from somebody who knows what went on during that particular time," the prosecutor said. -- With radio dzMM