Massacre case dismissal foretold


It was as if some senators read an oracle on the fate of the civilian massacre case in Maguindanao, a Southern Philippines province, in November last year. Though governments all over the world deplored the killings, which also took the lives of 32 journalists, the case has lost its momentum. From the time the government lodged murder and rebellion charges against the crime suspects three weeks after the gruesome murders, the legislators “prophesied” the case was doomed for dismissal.

And they were right.

About two weeks ago, (March 29, 2010) a Quezon City Regional Trial Court junked the case for lack of probable cause and ordered the release of Andal Ampatuan Sr., one of the main suspects in the massacre.

**See other stories on the Maguindanao massacre.**

Judge Vivencio Baclig of Branch 77 also ordered the release of those who were equally accused, including Ampatuan Sr.’s son and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan, Maguindanao Vice Gov. Datu Akmad Tato Ampatuan, Shariff Aguak Mayor Datu Anwar Ampatuan, and Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan.

But freedom will have to wait for them until they can be cleared from all the cases lodged against them…if they get an acquittal at all.

They will have to stay behind bars as they also answer to multiple murder raps before Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, also in Quezon City.

As early as December, 2009, senators have taken turns criticizing the government's decision to file murder and rebellion charges against the suspects.

They stressed the state was committing a mistake for filing rebellion charges because a lot of aspects in that kind of case were missing. Rebellion, they insisted, should be an open, organized and armed resistance to established government.

Some of them even said government had really intended to file a “wrong case” to allow the suspects to go scot-free as they were known to be staunch allies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Quoting from the Philippine Penal Code, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, in a speech last year, defined the crime of rebellion as “rising publicly and taking arms against the Government for the purpose of removing from the allegiance to said Government or its laws, the territory of the Republic of the Philippines or any part thereof, or any body of land, naval, or other armed forces, or of depriving the Chief Executive or the Legislative, wholly or partially, of any of their powers and prerogatives.”

She went on to say that another existing law, Proclamation No. 1959, does not even claim there was a state of actual rebellion in the Ampatuan case. This, Santiago stressed, was by itself a fatal flaw.

What the Proclamation claims, she said, was that “heavily armed groups in the province of Maguindanao have established positions to resist government troops.”

“The Constitution does not impose the condition that heavily armed groups have established positions to resist. The Constitution imposes the condition that there is an actual rebellion. Thus, the Proclamation does not comply with the first condition,” the Senator added.

Santiago also said rebellion is a political offense, not a common crime. “The essence of rebellion is ideological motivation, meaning the advocacy that the existing government should be destroyed, by removing citizen allegiance. I respectfully point out that where there is no ideological motivation, there is no rebellion,” she noted.

“If no political motive is established and proved, the accused should be convicted of the common crime and not rebellion. In cases of rebellion, motive relates to the act, and mere membership in an organization dedicated to the furtherance of rebellion would not, by itself, suffice. The crime of rebellion carries a lighter penalty than murder. Thus, it is imperative for our courts to ascertain whether or not the act was done in furtherance of a political end. It is not enough that the overt acts of rebellion are proven. Both purpose and overt acts are essential components of the crime,” Santiago further noted.

This and other indications that seemed to point to a possible dismissal of the case even as early as last year. And several senators weren’t at all surprised when the case was finally junked some two weeks ago.

Baclig partly based his decision to dismiss the rebellion case under the Revised Penal Code, which Senator Santiago used several months ago. He stressed that rebellion was defined as a “public uprising and the taking up of arms” to pursue a political end.

And like what the Senator much earlier said, several elements to “comprise” a rebellion case were not seen in the Ampatuan case.

In his ruling, Baclig said, “even assuming that there was an uprising, there is no showing that the purpose of the uprising is political. That is, to overthrow the duly constituted government in order to establish another form of government. In other words, the second element of rebellion is also absent.”

For Senators Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and Aquilino Pimentel Jr., the case was weak from the beginning but it was nonetheless filed so the President would not be accused of sitting on the case to protect her allies.

“The dismissal of rebellion charges against the Ampatuans is another delay of justice often seen during the reign of this administration, and again hints that political alliances still hold top priority, even in the face of a gruesome crime,” Aquino said in a statement.

He went on to say that clearly, the rebellion charges were questionable from the start and were part of the (Arroyo) administration’s charade to justify the inexcusable declaration of martial law in Maguindanao.

Aquino also noted the martial law which was imposed after the slaughter was a sham declaration, intended to protect and not prosecute the allies of the Chief Executive and to confuse the public as to the real crimes committed by the Ampatuans.

"The fact that the charges were weak to begin with, shows that the political alliance is still alive. Before you know it, it will be business as usual for the Mrs. Arroyo, the Ampatuans and other politicians, who serve her ends,” he further said.

Pimentel, on the other hand, said the rebellion was a “non-case filed with deceptive motives, and pursued with hypocritical zeal” to mislead the people that the Arroyo administration was upholding the law.

“The massacre was pure and simple multiple murders of innocent people. By filing such crimes against them, they will be detained without bail. But no. The government chose to charge them with rebellion just so it can be said that the government under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her minions were doing something to penalize the Ampatuans,” he said in a separate statement.

The Senate Minority Leader stressed the Ampatuans should not be released immediately. By proper legal pleadings, the case dismissal might still be put on hold.

Pimentel said the Ampatuans could still be detained to face other charges like massacre, illegal possession of firearms, maintaining a private army, among others.

But Malacañang, the government’s seat of power, insisted the court’s decision focused simply on finding no probable cause for the charges of rebellion, not necessarily finding the declaration of Martial Law illegal, nor would it affect the multiple murder charges against the suspects because the two cases are being handled by two different judges under separate proceedings.

Deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar admitted that with the dismissal of the rebellion charges, the resolution of the mass murder case may not be achieved under President Arroyo’s government.

The rebellion case was lodged against Ampatuan Sr., the other members of his clan and its supporters for allegedly ordering government offices to close down to protest a military crackdown against them after the massacre of the 57 people including lawyers, women and journalists in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, on Nov 23 last year.

The carnage was apparently made to stop Buluan, Maguindanao Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu from challenging the Ampatuans’ control of Maguindanao in a gubernatorial election in May. The attack was made when the challenger asked his wife, a daughter and supporters to file his candidacy for governor. Olivar advised the relatives of the victims to remain vigilant while keeping track of the developments in the case and make sure that they receive justice.

He said government is set to file a motion for reconsideration through Justice Secretary Alberto Agra to ensure that the Ampatuans will not be able to go scot-free from what he calls a “political offense” which they allegedly committed.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is also reportedly bent on pursuing the case.

AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Delfin Bangit said while the military honors the decision of the court, he stressed there are other legal remedies authorities can take to go after the case.

Ampatuan Jr., the suspended ARMM governor and believed to be the mastermind of the massacre, is presently detained at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) headquarters in Manila, facing 56 counts of murder charges while the rest of the Ampatuan clan, are held at the police headquarters.

Records show that families of the massacre victims expressed fears that “unseen powerful hands” are working to whitewash all cases related to the slaughter, following the dismissal of the rebellion case against the Ampatuans.

“It could be a start of another game plan, to free all the Ampatuans so they can help in the coming election,” Manuel Reblando, brother of Manila Bulletin reporter Alejandro “Bong” Reblando, was quoted by a newspaper as saying.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer, one of the country’s top broadsheets, wrote about Monet Salaysay, widow of Napoleon Salaysay of Mindanao Gazette, and noted how hysterical she was when she learned about the dropping of the rebellion charges.

The same newspaper quoted the Alliance Against Impunity in Mindanao (AIM) as saying after gaining a legal victory, the Ampatuans could again emerge with more power and influence.

The group's spokesperson, lawyer Carlos Zarate, said the eventual release of the Ampatuans was not farfetched, given the continuing dominance of the Ampatuans in the politics of the Maguindanao and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the signs of a weakening prosecution.

“There are reports that the victims' families are facing threats and bribes to make them withdraw the charges. And the government’s lack of effort in security material evidence, and its move to rely more on testimonial evidence, also weaken the case,” PDI quoted Zarate as saying.

“The Ampatuans are still a powerful force in their turfs and this was shown by the visit paid by 28 mayoral candidates all the way from Maguindanao to the Eastern Mindanao Command headquarters in Davao to seek Andal Sr.'s blessings,” Zarate added.

The group stressed that the freedom of the Ampatuans would be courtesy of Arroyo government's lack of political will to crack down on, and disband private armies.

The group members also said they have not seen a single arrest of anyone from the list of 196 suspects in the massacre despite "the deployment of military battalions."

But Judge Baclig stressed the prosecution committed abuse of discretion when it ignored the fact that it lacked evidence to establish probable cause in the case of rebellion against the Ampatuans.

“The essential element of public armed uprising against the government is lacking. There were no masses or multitudes involving crowd action done in furtherance of a political end,” he said. But Baclig’s order, according to Zarate’s group, is suspicious.

PDI further published the group’s reservation: “We raise the possibility that with the dismissal of the rebellion case and the persistent attempts of the defense for the release of the Ampatuans from prison, the Arroyo government is cooking up a scheme to employ, once again, the Ampatuan machinery for fraud and terrorism in the May 10 elections.”

“We warn the Arroyo government that the world is watching; history will judge unkindly Ms. Arroyo should the Ampatuan warlords go scot-free for committing one of the world's worst murders of journalists and civilians in one incident,” Zarate said.

“We will push for all means to ensure vigilance in the justice-seeking process of the victims' families. Already, the families feel the pain of a government that is failing them twice. We enjoin all people to be vigilant, and go all out in their support to the families of the Ampatuan massacre victims,” he added. AIM is a movement of various sectors in Mindanao formed recently to protect civil and political rights amidst the rise of militarism, extra-judicial killings, and political harassments in Mindanao.

Published reports quoted former Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera as saying, “the massacre was unprecedented even in a country known for election violence and political killings that have claimed hundreds of lives in the last 10 years. Only the war crime trials of World War II Japanese commanders in the Philippines involved a higher number of victims.”