MANILA - One of the most anticipated judicial rulings will be out today as the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) is set to release its verdict on the accused in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre—the country's worst case of electoral violence and the world's single-deadliest attack against journalists.
Quezon City RTC Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes is due to hand down her decision on the closely watched case, where 101 of the total 197 accused, including members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, are on trial for the deaths of 58 people, including 32 journalists, on November 23, 2009.
Thursday's ruling is a culmination of 10 years of court proceedings, during which case files reached 238 folders, a testament to the long road to justice for the victims and their families.
On Tuesday, Malacañang and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed hopes that the victims would finally get justice a decade since their passing.
"The court will decide on the basis of evidence and we hope that justice will be given to the parties, especially the prosecution,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo told reporters.
Panelo served as counsel for one of the prime suspects, Datu Andal "Unsay" Ampatuan Jr., in 2014.
CHR spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia said she hoped that justice will finally be given the victims after a long wait.
”Umaasa tayo na sa Thursday, talaga naman ito na ang senyales na makakamit na finally ng mga biktima ang hustisya na matagal na nilang inaasam,” De Guia said.
(We are hoping that on Thursday, this will be the sign that the victims will finally get the justice their families have long been waiting for.)
The 2009 massacre sent shockwaves around the world for its brazenness: allegedly on orders of a political family, around a hundred armed men attacked a convoy of innocent civilians.
The international community condemned the slays, with the United Nations calling it a heinous crime and then-US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney describing the act as "barbaric."
A number of groups, both local and global, have been keeping watch of the court proceedings, with many scoring the slow justice for the victims.
Judge Solis-Reyes' sala was designated as a special court to handle the trial, with the Supreme Court clearing her docket of other cases to ensure faster proceedings.
Those slain were on their way to file the certificate of candidacy of then-gubernatorial hopeful Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, who wanted to challenge then-Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of then-incumbent Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., for the capitol's helm.
Mangudadatu had hoped those he sent to file his bid on his behalf—among them several women—would be spared from a possible attack.
But there was, apparently, no mercy: the victims were first mauled—slapped, punched and hit—and then shot execution-style. Their bodies were then dumped in a shallow grave on a hill in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town in Maguindanao.
Among those killed were Mangudadatu’s wife, 2 sisters, and 12 other relatives and supporters, 32 journalists, 2 lawyers and a father of one of them, 2 drivers, and 6 passersby.
Accused of planning and executing the attack are several members of the Ampatuan political clan, including siblings Andal Jr., former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Datu Zaldy “Puti” Ampatuan, Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, currently mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, and former Sharrif Aguak mayor Datu Anwar Ampatuan Sr.
During trial, they presented their respective defenses, with most of them saying they were elsewhere when the killings happened.
Their father, former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., was also arrested and held for trial in the massacre case. He died in July 2015 of a heart attack.
His criminal liabilities, along with 7 other accused who died during the course of the trial, have been extinguished with their passing.
Other Ampatuans facing sentencing are: Datu Anwar Sr.'s sons— Datu Anwar Sajid Ampatuan alias Datu Ulo; Datu Anwar Ampatuan Jr. alias Datu Ipi; Datu Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan Sr., nephew and son-in-law of Andal Sr.; and, Jimmy Ampatuan, also tagged in the alleged conspiracy.
At least 14 other suspects bearing the Ampatuan surname are charged but remain at large.
A total of 54 police officers and 39 other civilians also face sentencing Thursday.
The accused may face a sentence of reclusion perpetua or up to 40 years in prison for each of the 58 counts of murder for which they were tried.
- with reports from Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News