MANILA — It is "unacceptable" that the loved ones of 58 people killed in the Maguindanao massacre have yet to get justice nearly a decade after one of the world's worst election-related incidents of violence, their lawyer said Thursday.
The victims, including 32 journalists and several members of the Mangudadatu clan, were on their way to file the certificate of candidacy of former Maguindanao governor and now Rep. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, when their convoy was strafed in Ampatuan town on Nov. 23, 2009.
The victims were buried in a shallow mass grave, which authorities later found with backhoes still in the area.
The attack was allegedly led by Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. and carried out by the rest of his family, allegedly alarmed by Mangudadatu's challenge to their decades-old hold on power in the area.
"Hindi katanggap-tanggap ay iyong mga pangyayaring ito na tumatagal ng higit 10 taon para makakuha ng katarungan," said the victims' lawyer, Harry Roque.
(It is unacceptable that this incident is taking 10 years before justice is served.)
The Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) 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.
But a Philippine Star report, citing sources, claimed that the handling judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has sent a letter to the Supreme Court (SC) asking for a 30-day extension on the period given her to rule on the cases.
"Siyempre nalulungkot kami dahil ang buong akala namin, sa pagbalik-tanaw natin ng ika-10 anibersaryo ng karumal-dumal na massacre na ito, at least magkakaroon na ng katarungan iyong mga biktima," said Roque.
"Bagama't nalulungkot kami, siguro naman dahil nakapaghintay na ng 10 taon, puwedeng maghintay pa ng 1 buwan," he added.
(We are sad because we thought that in marking the 10th anniversary of this gruesome massacre, the victims will already get justice. But although we are sad, perhaps because we already waited for 10 years, we can hold out for 1 more month.)
Reacting to the judge's reported request for more time for her ruling, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said: "We shall leave this matter to the sound discretion of the Supreme Court."
"But we really hope that the good judge would be able to promulgate her decision sooner than later," he said in a statement.
WITNESSES STILL IN DANGER?
In the course of the trial, 3 witnesses were killed and others were still being threatened, according to lawyer Nena Santos, who represents families of 38 victims.
Two witnesses, she added, recanted their testimony and a third one claims to have been harassed.
Roque said he has yet to see any reform in the government's Witness Protection Program a decade after the massacre.
"Karamihan po ng mga pumapasok sa WPP, gustong lumabas kasi iyong quality of life doon sa loob talagang parang nakakulong ka na rin," he said.
(Many who enter the WPP want to go out because the quality of life there is like imprisonment.)
The trial, he said, would have been faster if there had been a "partial promulgation" for several of the accused, which should have excluded police officers who were far from the area during the massacre.
"Dapat tinutukan iyong mga akusado na namaril at sumapi sa pagpaplano at hindi naman dapat naging 197 iyong ating naging akusado... Marami po tayong leksyon na sana naman maging dahilan para magkaroon ng malawakang pagbabago sa ating sistema ng katarungan," said Roque.
(The prosecution should have focused on the accused who shot the victims and those who joined the planning. The number of the accused should not have reached 197. There are many lessons that should prompt wide reforms in our justice system.)
Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr., the Ampatuan clan patriarch who allegedly masterminded the massacre, passed away in 2015.