AMPATUAN, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 23 Nov) – Exactly nine years ago today, the worst election-related violence in the Philippines and the single deadliest attack against media workers anywhere else stunned and made headlines around the world.
Fifty-eight people, including 32 media workers, were mangled, some beyond recognition, by the powerful firearms of gunmen who tried to hide the grisly crime by burying the victims in freshly dug pits.
Nine years later, justice remained elusive for the victims of the infamous Ampatuan massacre, called as such because they were slaughtered in this town, particularly in the hilly Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman.
At least 196 suspects were charged, of which 81 remained scot-free to date, according to a private lawyer.
The principal suspects include key members of the Ampatuan clan, who before the infamous massacre was considered the most powerful political family in Maguindanao whose wealth were allegedly amassed from public coffers.
Family members of the media victims have expressed outrage over the slow wheel of justice ahead of the ninth anniversary of the gruesome massacre.
To express their dismay and anger, they burned last November 18 tarpaulins bearing the photographs of Ampatuan siblings Andal Jr., Zaldy and Sajid at the foot of the memorial marker at the massacre site.
In 2009, Andal Jr. was the mayor of Datu Unsay town and allegedly headed the gunmen who killed the victims, Zaldy was the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Sajid the vice governor and acting Maguindanao governor.
Andal Jr. and Zaldy are detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.
Sajid was allowed to post bail in 2015 after spending five years in jail in connection with the Ampatuan massacre case. He is facing other falsification, graft and malversation charges.
“Every year that passed without a conviction is very painful on our part. Now we are here again and still without justice. It’s too long already,” said Elliber Cablitas, husband of Marites Cablitas of News Focus based in General Santos City.
“Instead of celebrating justice, we’re here again at the massacre site reliving the pain,” he added.
Ever since, the families of the media victims annually commemorate and visit the massacre site ahead of the actual date of the gruesome slay.
Cablitas, a retired policeman, said that if offers were made today to withdraw from the celebrated massacre case, some families of the media victims might have accepted it “out of exasperation for lack of justice.”
A year or two after the massacre, he admitted receiving offers between P10 million to P20 million to abandon the case.
“I rejected those offers because I would like to pursue and exact justice for what happened. If that offers are made now, I think some families would accept out of desperation for the slow wheel of justice and because of practicability where they can use the money to support the needs of the family,” Cablitas said in Cebuano.
Nena Santos, the private counsel for the family of Maguindanao Gov. Ismael Mangudadatu, said they are expecting the court to issue a ruling “this year or within the early part of 2019.”
In 2009, Mangudadatu, then vice mayor of Buluan town, challenged the Ampatuan’s long grip on power by running and eventually winning the province’s gubernatorial race during the May 2010 elections.
He sent his wife Genalyn and several female family members to file his certificate of candidacy on that fateful day. The media workers were part of the convoy for coverage.
Mangudadatu is now on his third and last term as governor.
Santos said they are expecting the court to rule on the case “by early 2019 at the most” since it has finished hearing most of the suspects, including the Ampatuan siblings.
She said that out of the 196 suspects, 81 have not been arrested so far. Of those arrested, some have posted bail or have died, including the clan’s patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., who died in 2015 from liver cancer.
“Coming up with a decision took a long time because the huge number of the victims and the suspects overwhelmed the court,” the lawyer said in a local radio interview early this week.
Early this month, Andal Ampatuan Jr.’s defense team filed their formal offer of evidence, bringing the case closer to a ruling. The prosecution panel had filed theirs as early as 2013.
Santos said that if the Supreme Court did not set a special court for the Ampatuan massacre, the case might drag for 100 years because of the volume of complainants and respondents.
A widow’s worry
While she want justice for the victims, Genna Legarta, wife of Bienvenido Legarta Jr. of the weekly Periodico Ini, was worried about the education of their three children because she doesn’t have a regular source of income.
She said the educational assistance from the National Union of Journalists (NUJP) would end this December, which the group’s chair, Nonoy Espina, confirmed.
Espina said they are finding ways to continue the group’s educational assistance for the children of the slain media workers.
Eunice Glenelg, Legarta’s eldest daughter, was 11 years old when the massacre happened. She is now 20 and taking up radiology technology in college. Her two other younger siblings are also studying.
Following the massacre in 2009, Genna recalled she received some P400,000 from various sources, including the government, to assist the family.
“The money’s gone already and we are still searching for justice,” she said.
Ayesha Dilangalen, a daughter of massacre victim Bai Eden Mangudadatu, also lamented the lack of justice for the victims.
She expressed their family’s solidarity to the Christian families who lost their loved ones to the massacre.
“We should all be united in our quest for justice,” said Dilangalen, whose mother was a sister of Maguindanao Gov. Mangudadatu.
Mangudadatu had sent his female family members, including his wife Genalyn who was also killed, to file his certificate of candidacy for governor.
He believed that women won’t be hurt as prescribed by Islamic teachings.
The Ampatuan massacre proved him wrong.
Nine years later, Mangudadatu, along with the families of the other victims, are still thirsting for justice. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)