Case of mass journalist killings delayed


MANILA – The long-awaited trial of the celebrated Maguindanao Massacre of 57 people - including 32 journalists - opened here Wednesday but was postponed for a week, drawing outrage from the families of the victims. The case involved close to 200 accused and a long list of over 500 witnesses in the Philippines’ most celebrated multiple murder cases. Filipinos compare the Maguindanao case to the Nuremburg Trials and the Tokyo war crimes in terms of the number of victims and accused involved, plus the hundreds of witnesses that will testify during the long trial.

Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes is handling the case.

The massacre, which captured international attention because of its magnitude, occurred in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao province in southern Philippines some 850 kilometers south of Manila on November 23, 2009.

The victims were in a convoy of vehicles when they were mowed down by over 100 gunmen. The perpetrators used a backhoe to bury in victims in shallow graves in an effort to cover up the gory crimes.

The alleged masterminds are members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, particularly ex-Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his son former Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. Both are in police custody.

Legal luminaries said the trial could take years.

“If you follow the normal, business-as-usual proceedings in the court, five years may be a good ‘guesstimate,” said University of the East law dean lawyer Amado Valdez, dean of law of the University of the East and a veteran trial lawyer for three decades.

“I'd be a fool to give you a time frame,” echoed Senior Deputy State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon.

One of the 112 suspects at large surrendered to the police late last week. The suspect was identified as former Police Officer 1 Narkouk Duloan Mascud.

The Philippine government has offered a P28-million (US $625,000) reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the other suspects who are still at large.

Marlon Pagaduan, lawyer for some of the accused, said the case will drag on for years.

Bob Dietz, program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said he does not know how long the trial would last but stressed that those who ordered the killings must be brought to justice.

Judge Reyes has junked “for lack of merit” five motions filed by the Ampatuans seeking her inhibition [removal] from the case.

“There is really no hard and fast rule when it comes to the inhibition of judges. The issue of voluntary inhibition is primarily a matter of conscience and good discretion on the part of the judge,” Reyes said, citing a ruling made by the Supreme Court.

“The presiding judge wishes to remind the accused that she is not obliged to explain her side relative to the issues raised…but shall do so if only to enlighten them,” the intrepid Judge Reyes affirmed.

In a related development, Justice Secretary Leila De Lima directed the prosecution handling the high-profile Maguindanao massacre case to look for remedy outside court to prevent any delaying tactics by the accused.

“I told the panel to look for remedy outside the court...if we counter all their motions, we will only contribute to the delay. We cannot allow that,” De Lima said.

De Lima was furious after learning that the trial was reset to September 8.

Relatives of the massacre victims also reacted with anger when the trial was postponed for a week. They had traveled all the way from Mindanao in southern Philippines to attend the trial.

Ben Cal