A Philippine court is expected to rule next month on the country's worst political massacre that also killed dozens of journalists 10 years ago, a lawyer and survivors said Thursday, as media groups expressed hopes for convictions.
Fifty-eight people, including 32 journalists and media workers, died on Nov. 23, 2009, in what had been described as the world’s biggest single-day killing of members of the press. Almost 100 people have been jailed and charged with murder, but none have been convicted.
The journalists were killed as they tagged along with a convoy led by the wife of Esmael Mangudadatu, a Philippine congressman who was running for governor in southern Maguindanao province at the time. Prosecutors said the victims were waylaid and executed by gunmen controlled by Andal Ampatuan Snr.
The group was ambushed by about 100 followers of Ampatuan, who were armed with assault rifles, and the victims were forced to march to a nearby hill, where they were murdered, prosecutors said. The victims’ bodies were dumped in hastily dug graves and the suspects left behind a backhoe that has come to symbolize the crime.
Nena Santos, a lawyer for Congressman Mangudadatu, said Thursday that they hoped to get convictions when the court hearing the case was expected to release its decision before Dec. 20.
“We believe we have presented enough witnesses and evidence to prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt,” Santos told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
The case, she said, was long overdue for decision, noting that the prosecution panel had gone through at least 17 lawyers, with dozens of volumes of transcript of notes.
The violence exposed bitter rivalries among Muslim clans jostling for control of the south, a mineral-rich area that has for decades been locked in insurgency.
It has also come to symbolize impunity in the Philippines, a democratic and predominantly Catholic country where armed clashes has become pervasive and attacks on journalists all too common.
More than 350 witnesses have been presented by both sides, but a decade after the case began Santos said she still was receiving threats from unknown quarters.
“You name it, I’ve had it,” she said. “The worst was at 4:30 a.m. when I received a text message saying, ‘the person that will kill you is already at your house’ and I responded, saying, ‘Which house?’”
Four of her witnesses have been killed by unknown men, she said.
Mangudadatu, who lost his wife and siblings in the massacre, called on the court to hand down convictions, saying that a decade was too long to achieve closure.
“They shot my wife 17 times. They shot her on her breasts, her private part. Such unimaginable cruelty,” he said. “We expect nothing more than a conviction for all the major suspects at the very least.”
Press groups call for justice
Media associations such as FOCAP, as well as the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called for an immediate verdict of guilty for the massacre mastermind.
“No other outcome is acceptable. Not one more day of delay can be justified,” FOCAP said in a statement Thursday. “Our colleagues were doing their job when they were ruthlessly gunned down while begging for their lives.”
Police arrested and detained Zaldy Ampatuan and Datu Unsay Ampatuan, the men who allegedly engineered the massacre. They were the sons of Ampatuan Sr., the clan patriarch, who died in jail while on trial.
FOCAP said the convictions, as well as the full compensation for the families left behind by the victims, would be a first step in the healing process, but said the government must do more to prevent further political bloodshed in the southern region.
“We call on officials at the highest level to take effective steps to stop all forms of attacks and intimidation against journalists. They should fulfill their core constitutional duty to protect fundamental freedoms,” the statement said.
Ma. Reynafe Momay-Castillo, daughter of one of the journalists killed whose body was never found, said a decade of waiting for justice is too long.
“A day, a month or a year of delay in the resolution of the case will not only deny us justice but will deprive every victim and their family of a chance at redemption,” she said.
“My father’s life is not just a speck. He was all the father that I had,” she said. “The same is quite true to the families that were left without a mother, a father, a friend and a colleague.”
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City contributed to this report.