Updated at 4:57 p.m. ET on 2019-12-19
A Philippine court on Thursday found 28 members of a Muslim clan guilty and sentenced them to life in prison for murdering 58 people, many of them journalists, a decade ago in what is described as the biggest single-day attack on the working press.
In a 761-page ruling, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes ordered the sentences without the possibility of parole against Zaldy Ampatuan, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and his brother, Andal Ampatuan Jr. who engineered the massacre. They are the sons of Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan patriarch, who died in jail before the trial concluded.
Ronnie Perante Jr., son of slain tabloid reporter Ronnie Sr., said the verdict was both a relief and shock.
“We’re happy that the main suspects were found guilty. But we don’t understand why the others were acquitted,” he told the Philippine News Agency.
The court also found Anwar Ampatuan, Datu Ulo Ampatuan, Datu Ipi Ampatuan, then-police Maj. Sukarno Dicay and 22 others guilty and sentenced them to life in prison as well. Fifteen others were found guilty for their roles in the killings and received sentences ranging from six to 10 years.
Two members of the clan, Akmad and Sajid Islam Ama, were among 56 people including dozens of police officers who were acquitted and ordered released, marking the end of the marathon trials held at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City, a tightly guarded police camp near Manila.
On Nov. 23, 2009, the Ampatuan clan, backed by their privately controlled armed militiamen and police, ambushed a group of supporters of rival politician Esmael Mangudadatu, who had challenged the Ampatuan patriarch for the post of governor in the province of Maguindanao.
The clan gunned down Mangudadatu’s supporters and tried to hide their remains using a backhoe. Court documents released to the public detailed some of those killed showed signs of having been tortured including having their eyes gouged.
One of the militiamen recognized one of Mangudadatu’s drivers and asked Ampatuan Jr. to spare him, but the driver was shot and killed, according to the court documents.
Now a member of congress, Mangudadatu, whose wife and sisters were among those killed, said the guilty verdicts and sentencings showed the world that the law would eventually catch up with criminals.
“This will be a message not just to the people of Maguindanao but to the entire Philippines nation and the world that abusive power must and will stop, that their belief that they are entitled to power and that it will never end is not true,” Mangudadatu told reporters.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the verdict should help provide justice to the families of the victims and help promote accountability for rights abuses in the country.
“Advocates should use this verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director.
“More broadly, this verdict should prompt the country’s political leaders to finally act to end state support for ‘private armies’ and militias that promotes the political warlordism that gave rise to the Ampatuans,” he said.
Despite the convictions, Robertson said the victims’ survivors and witnesses remained at risk.
“Regardless of the verdicts in the case, Philippine authorities need to apprehend the several dozen suspects still at large. It should not take another crime as heinous as the Maguindanao Massacre for the Philippines to reform the delivery of justice,” Robertson said.
Nena Santos, a lawyer who represented 38 of the victims, said she had received “more than a hundred threats” over the 10 years she has been involved in the case. She said most threats were made via text messages and phone calls, but some people delivered their threats personally.
“They continue to harass, intimidate, and threaten,” Santos told BenarNews by phone. “Which is why the Philippine National Police should arrest the remaining suspects in the case.”
Since 2010, three witnesses in the case have been killed and none of the suspects were captured.
Journalists face dangers
Amnesty International regional director Nicholas Bequelin said the verdict represented a critical step for the survivors.
“Even with these convictions, the families’ search for justice remains far from over. Some 80 other people accused have yet to be arrested. The government must take steps to find and prosecute all those suspected to have taken part in the massacre,” he said.
Bequelin spoke about the 32 journalists and media workers slain in the massacre and those murdered since then.
“The Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, with at least 15 journalists killed just this year in attacks believed to be related to their work. The government must ensure the security and safety of journalists in the country and prosecute those behind the killings,” Bequelin said.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed hope that people would be more aware of the role of a free press in the country.
“There really is so much at stake here. The fact that (the trial) … dragged on for 10 years really impacted our human rights situation. It contributed to the climate of impunity,” CHR spokeswoman Jacqueline de Guia said.
“It’s worrying that 10 years since the Maguindanao massacre, heightened attacks against the media continue. That is something that we decry in a democracy,” de Guia added.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Froilan Gallardo in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.