Imperfect Justice in Ampatuan Massacre

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre. With the guilty verdicts imposed on many of the accused —most of the masterminds and many of the perpetuators—last December 2019, this year’s milestone is not as depressing as in previous years. At the same time, we must remember that what we achieved with the guilty verdicts is what I described in a Layman’s Guide to the Ampatuan Massacre verdict, published in MindaNews, as “imperfect justice.”

For sure, the claim of the Duterte government to UNESCO that these killings of many journalists, the worst recorded in the world, has been resolved, is premature. UNESCO rightly withdrew that observation. In the first place, the verdicts are not even final yet and have been appealed. It will probably take at least three years, even longer, for that to happen. I will not rule out success in the appeal as some of the accused definitely have resources to mount vigorous processes.

For sure, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge  Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes did a good, thorough job in convicting the Ampatuan brothers namely Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr and Zaldy Ampatuan of 57 counts of murder and sentencing them to reclusion perpetua without parole. Twenty-eight co-accused, including police officers, were also convicted of 57 counts of murder and sentenced to 40 years, and 15 were sentenced to six to 10 years for being accessories to the crime. But 55 others were acquitted, including one of the main suspects, Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan, the then incumbent mayor of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Maguindanao. Some accused continue to be at large and one victim—Reynaldo Momay—was not given justice because of lack of evidence even as his family is certain that he was among those killed.

For the record, despite the notoriety of the clan, it is not right to condemn all members of the Ampatuan family as evil or to pretend that they are the only political dynasty in this country. In this regard, Judge Solis-Reyes was rightly scrupulous and did not get carried away by the reputation of the Ampatuans and decided the case on its merits.

In a statement issued after the Ampatuan verdict was announced, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) welcomed the convictions. According to the organization, “this is a significant and landmark step in proving the guilt of the Ampatuan clan members and their minions in the massacre, the worst single attack against journalists in the world and the worst single election-related violence in the country. NUJP continued: “We laud the families of the 58 victims for never giving up and succumbing to threats, bribes and harassment and instead stood their ground in fighting for justice for their loved ones. The convictions and indemnification can never bring back the lives of the victims and erase the pain of the families who lost their loved ones. But these, in some way, alleviate the suffering that they have endured for the past 10 years.”

In the Layman’s Guide, I quote a 2010 Human Rights Watch (HRW) which explains why the massacre, while an aberration for its brutality, can and will be repeated. According to that report:“The private army of the Ampatuan family may be among the most abusive in the Philippines, but it is just one among many. More than 100 private armies, large and small, are estimated to be operating throughout the Philippines, primarily but not exclusively in rural areas, and often but not always where there is an active insurgency. The level of direct government support for these militias varies, but if the Ampatuan example is any indication, a history of abuses is no disqualifier. So long as such official support continues, so will these forces and the atrocities for which they have been responsible. The Maguindanao massacre was an aberration only because of how many people died, not because of its cold-blooded brutality, which the government, military, and police has long tolerated, and even fuelled. Instead, the killings were an atrocity waiting to happen.”

When the verdict was handed out, I opined to several local and international media outlets that the enabling conditions for the massacre—warlordism and political dynasties—persist in the country. “The Ampatuan Massacre was state sanctioned, state violence in the extreme,” I told The Guardian, and must be treated as such. I did say that the sentencing did offer hope and sent “a strong signal that impunity is not forever.” Indeed, as I pointed out then, it might take 10 years, but justice will catch up. These were crimes against humanity like the killings in the war against illegal drugs and those who are responsible for the latter should know they will not elude justice.

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