MANILA (UPDATE) — A leader of the Ampatuan clan who was acquitted over the Maguindanao massacre could have stopped the carnage that claimed 58 lives, a lawyer of the victims said Friday, as their camp looked into legal remedies against the verdict.
Sajid Ampatuan, who was OIC governor of Maguindanao during the Nov. 23 2009 massacre, took part in its planning and failed to report the crime in an apparent cover-up attempt, said Atty. Nena Santos, who represented the families of 38 victims.
Top leaders of the Ampatuan family -- one of the most powerful political dynasties in the country's insurgency-wracked south -- were accused of carrying out the slaughter to prevent their rivals from contesting gubernatorial elections in Maguindanao province.
A convoy carrying members of a local political clan -- as well as many journalists -- embarked on a well-publicized road trip to register a candidate for provincial elections. They were allegedly ambushed by the Ampatuans' private army, shot dead, and buried in roadside pits.
A special court ruled Thursday that the guilt of Sajid, now an incumbent mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha town, could not be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt."
The "not guilty" finding bars any appeal on the criminal aspect as it would amount to double jeopardy, a constitutional right preventing an accused from being tried again for the same or similar charge following an acquittal or conviction.
Sajid, however, could still face a civil suit seeking damages for the victims, said Santos.
The victims could also question the verdict before the Supreme Court if they find grave abuse on the judge's part, she said.
While Sajid was at the area where the Ampatuans allegedly planned the massacre, "it would appear that there's no evidence he did in fact take part in any of the discussion," said Senior Deputy State Prosecutor Richard Anthony Fadullon.
"The mere presence of a person doon sa lugar kung saan idinaos iyong pagpupulong (in the area where the meeting was held) is not by itself an indication of conspiracy unless he showed some participation in the discussion," he told radio DZMM.
Any doubt in a case is resolved in the favor of the accused, he noted.
Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes on Thursday found guilty 43 people, including brothers Zaldy and Andal "Unsay" Ampatuan Jr., 14 police officers and a member of the Ampatuan militia.
Some 53 defendants were acquitted, while 80 accused remain at large.
The victims' families are "partially satisfied" with the verdict because it convicted most of the accused against whom evidence was presented, said Santos.
"Medyo lang nagkaroon kami ng kaunting pag-alangan doon kay Sajid Ampatuan kasi kumpleto naman iyong pagprisente namin ng evidence, bakit ganoon ang lumabas," she said.
(We just have some misgiving about Sajid Ampatuan because the evidence we presented was complete, but why was the verdict like that?)
— With a report from Agence France-Presse