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COMMENTARY: A rare triumph of accountability in a country notorious for impunity

When I heard the verdict handed down in the Maguindanao Massacre case (on December 19, 2019) , I was ecstatic. As a former journalist, I’ve waited 10 long years for a court to convict the perpetrators of the country’s worst case of political violence, in which 58 people, 32 of them journalists, were killed execution-style.

The masterminds of this horrific crime – Andal Ampatuan Jr. and his brother Zaldy Ampatuan Jr. – were sentenced to life in prison without parole.  But out of more than 107 who stood trial, only 28 people were convicted for murder, receiving 40-year prison terms, minus 10 for time served. Another 15 people were found guilty as accessory to the murders. The court acquitted 55 defendants of all charges. Then there are the 80 suspects that police have failed to arrest.

So this was justice, if only partially, and may not fully comfort victims’ relatives. I’m especially reminded of Reynaldo Momay, the 58th victim, whose case the court did not include because his body was never found. I wrote about him and his family when I was still reporting for the New York Times, and the bitterness I felt then only worsened after the court shunted aside his fate.

But in today’s Philippines, this verdict is a victory nonetheless – a rare triumph of accountability in a country notorious for impunity and where politicians and warlords can get away with anything, including murder.

The challenge now is to finish this quest for justice, starting with the arrest of the 80 suspects who remain at large. Both victims’ families and witnesses remain in danger as long as these suspects are free.

Then there’s the question of whether another Maguindanao Massacre could happen again. I’m afraid that so long as the national government ignores or even coddles local ruling families with “private armies,” future Maguindanaos are inevitable. Until the military and police can be trusted to dismantle politicians’ illegal forces, instead of participating in them, those who try to exercise their basic rights, whether as opposition candidates, journalists or ordinary citizens, will be at risk.

So I fear these convictions will not upend my country’s dysfunctional political culture. But today, at least, was a day for justice.

(Carlos H. Conde, former editor in chief of SunStar Cagayan de Oro and correspondent of New York Times is Philippines Researcher at Human Rights Watch. This piece was e-mailed to media outlets by Mr. Conde and appears in HRW’s website, under ‘Dispatches,’ titled Masterminds Guilty in Philippines Massacre)

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