Sunday, November 14, 2010

‘Faltering judicial system’ hinders Ampatuan massacre case

The New York Times
Published: Nov. 11, 2010

MANILA — Nearly a year after 57 people, including dozens of journalists and media workers, were massacred in the southern Philippines, prosecution of the case has been jeopardized by a ‘‘faltering judicial system,’’ with forensic evidence mishandled, the trial unreasonably delayed and witnesses offered bribes and subjected to violence, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

A report from the New York-based organization said President Benigno S. Aquino III ‘‘must follow through on commitments to ensure justice’’ in the killings that took place on Nov. 23, 2009, in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao Province.

‘‘We are very concerned about this case and that is why we demand demonstrable reforms from President Aquino while he still has the mandate to do so,’’ Shawn Crispin, the New York-based committee’s senior Southeast Asia representative and the author of the report, said in an interview Wednesday.

The killings are believed to be the worst case of political violence in this country’s history and the worst known single attack on journalists in the world, according to watchdog groups.

The victims were on a convoy heading toward the election office in Maguindanao Province to file the candidacy papers of Esmael Mangudadatu, who was to run for governor against the then-incumbent Andal Ampatuan Sr., when they were stopped at a roadblock by gunmen. They were then brought to a grassy hilltop where they were killed and buried.

Nearly 200 defendants, including Mr. Ampatuan and his son, Andal Ampatuan Jr., have been charged in the killings.

Philip Sigfrid Fortun, a lawyer for Mr. Ampatuan Jr., was quoted in the CPJ report as denying that his clients were involved in the murders or that they attempted to bribe families of victims.

The trial of the case began only in September and is expected to take years, if not decades, to complete because there are at least 196 suspects and more than 200 witnesses listed by prosecutors.

Of the 196 suspects in the case, only 66 are in custody while the remaining 130, most of them police officers and members of the Ampatuan militia, are at large. Of the 66 in custody only 19 are actually on trial, although 28 more were arraigned on Wednesday, when they pleaded not guilty.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima acknowledged on Wednesday that “given the number of victims as well as the magnitude of the crime, there are still gaps and deficiencies in case management.” However, she said in an interview, her department “is currently taking serious steps toward speedier and focused proceedings.”

Mr. Crispin said he is encouraged by the arrests of the Ampatuans and four other members of the clan, which ruled Maguindanao province for years and for which Ampatuan town is named. Additionally, Mr. Crispin credited the Aquino government for having implemented certain reforms, such as increasing the budget of the witness protection program. But more reforms need to be introduced to ensure the judicial process in the country is not compromised, he said.

The committee said it found that at least two relatives of the victims had been offered bribes, which they refused, by men who claimed to represent the Ampatuans. It also said that witnesses and their relatives had been harassed and attacked. One potential witness, a reputed member of a militia maintained by the Ampatuans who had given interviews detailing what he said was his role in the killings, was killed in June under ‘‘unclear circumstances,’’ the report said.

Witnesses are crucial in this case because forensic evidence gathered at the massacre site was either mishandled or contaminated, the report said.

That reflects a systemic problem, according to Human Rights Watch, which has also been monitoring the case. ‘‘Here in the Philippines, witness testimony is the most important in cases like this and that is the bigger problem,’’ Elaine Pearson, the group’s deputy director for Asia, said in an interview. ‘‘We need to enhance the capability to gather and handle forensic evidence.’’