Victims’ lawyer: Press freedom dead if no conviction in Maguindanao massacre

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 05 2019 08:07 PM

Lawyer Nena Santos, who is handling some of the murder cases connected to the Maguindanao massacre in 2009, talks to media on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Quezon City. Santos said there is no other verdict in the case considered the single deadliest attack on journalists. Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

The lawyer representing the families of 38 victims in the Maguindanao massacre in 2009 is expecting no less than a guilty verdict for the principal accused in the murder of 58 people, including 32 journalists.

“We are the prosecution and we know our evidence and we know that we have submitted to the Honorable Court the evidence to convict the accused,” lawyer Nena Santos told a group of reporters Tuesday at an event organized by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines as part of its month-long commemoration of the massacre.

Santos represents the wife, 2 sisters, relatives and supporters of former Maguindanao governor, now Rep. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, who were killed when their convoy was stopped by armed men in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2009.

The Mangudadatus were on their way to file his certificate of candidacy in Shariff Aguak town, accompanied by their lawyers, members of the media and some passers-by.

Their bodies were later recovered riddled with bullets, some buried in a shallow mass grave in a hilly portion of Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town, Maguindanao.

The armed men were allegedly led by Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. and the entire Ampatuan family were implicated, allegedly alarmed at the threat posed by Mangudadatu challenging their decades-old hold on power in the area.

The Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221, which handles the case, has declared it submitted for decision as of August 22, and a verdict is expected before the 90-day period lapses on November 20.

Some 101 of the 197 accused are waiting be sentenced. Ninety of them are currently detained including Unsay’s brother, former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan, while 11 are out on bail such as former Maguindanao governor Sajid Ampatuan.

Two accused were discharged as state witnesses, the cases for 6 others have been dropped while the 80 others remain at large.

“We are not sure of the 100% but we are sure that the principal accused will be convicted,” Santos said of the possible verdict.

DEATH OF PH PRESS FREEEDOM IF NO CONVICTION

Santos said that should the 10-year-old case end without a conviction, the implications are dire on the state of press freedom in the country.

With 32 journalists killed, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists considers the incident the single deadliest attack against the media. 

“If nobody gets to jail for killing journalists, what will happen to press freedom? Nada, it’s dead,” she said.

VICTIMS AND WITNESSES

Families of the 58 victims have waited for close to 10 years to claim justice over the deaths of their loved ones, amidst threats and having to live with the trauma.
 
“Of course they are hoping and in the succeeding years they tried to move on and live, but still hopeful that the conviction will come as soon as possible,” she said. 

In the course of the trial, 3 witnesses have been killed and the others, according to Santos, are still being threatened. Two witnesses have recanted their testimony and a third one claims to have been harassed.

“This is a life-changing event, once they testify, they will forever be haunted by the Ampatuans and the other accused. It's not only the Ampatuans but many more, but there are 197 accused running after them,” she said. 

“But with the support of the private complainants, with the support of the DOJ, with the support of the media, local media and everybody who are helping this case, they continued to hold on, except for the others who are offered money.”

Santos said that although the clout of the Ampatuan family in Maguindanao has waned over the years, the threat of the Ampatuans’ return to power and the Maguindanao massacre happening all over again remains real.

“For as long as there will be no strong contender against them, they might rise again. So it's up to the people of Maguindanao to choose the right leaders so that Maguindanao Massacre will never be repeated,” she warned.

SECOND WAVE OF CASES

Santos said that aside from the promulgation of judgment against 101 accused, they are also waiting for the Department of Justice’s resolution on the complaint against a second batch of 50 politicians, policemen and other security personnel filed in 2015.

She said they were identified by witnesses during the trial.

“We did not submit any affidavit anymore, we just submitted the transcript of stenographic notes for them to be included in the second wave,” she explained.
 
Santos is hoping that the expected promulgation on the first batch of accused in the Maguindanao massacre will eventually pave the way for a faster resolution of the succeeding case.