Case of the vanishing witnesses

When a widow of one of the 58 victims of the Maguindanao massacre told Philippine President Benigno Aquino that she feared for her life, Aquino ordered she be given protection.

The first bodyguard assigned to Myrna Reblando appeared to be reliable, until one day he apologetically told her he had asked for a transfer, because 'I'm not Superman who can deflect all the bullets of the enemy'.

Another bodyguard was assigned.

It wasn't long before she discovered, through casual conversation, that he was a former security escort of Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Muslim Autonomous Region of Maguindanao, who is alleged to have conspired to commit the massacre November 23, 2009.

Reblando has good reason to be scared.

The Maguindanao massacre and its aftermath is a tragic tale of fear, justice delayed and the powerful machinations of the Ampatuan clan.

Several witnesses have been murdered or disappeared, another committed suicide and a politician at the centre of the massacre was the target of a car bomb attack.

Reblando, whose journalist-husband Alejandro was among the victims, was moved to seek political asylum in Hong Kong after her last appearance in court on April 7 last year, inside Camp Bagong Diwa in Manila.

The court is in a maximum security facility where Andal Ampatuan Snr - the massacre's alleged mastermind - and his co-conspirator sons - are detained along with scores of other accused.

Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, 52, won the case in a raffle after one of her male colleagues, Luisito Cortez, backed out, saying he feared for his life and that of his family and staff.

The judge and the victims' relatives have all been provided with security but Reblando still felt unsafe.

'I did not feel protected, even with my own security escorts,' Reblando told a forum at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club in June.

The mother of seven flew to Hong Kong to seek political asylum with the help of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

Alejandro and 31 other journalists were covering Esmael Mangudadatu, Maguindanao's vice-mayor, who had decided to try to wrest control of the town from the Ampatuan clan and run for governor of Maguindanao against Andal Ampatuan, Jnr, who was the mayor.

Mangudadatu wrongly calculated that sending his young wife, Genalyn, to file his candidacy - accompanied by a pack of reporters, lawyers and his two sisters - would shield the convoy from harm.

On the road to the capital, the convoy was stopped by more than 100 armed men led by the mayor, who herded them into a remote clearing where they were shot at close range, witnesses have said. A mechanical digger ran out of fuel before all the bodies could be buried.

Reblando has said that when she was asked to identify her husband, 'I was not asked what he looked like. I was asked what he wore. That told me his face was beyond recognition.'

The autopsy report said his face had been riddled with bullets and was bashed in.

Reblando believes part of the reason she is a target is because she co-filed a civil suit for 50 million pesos (HK$9.25 million) against the clan and a separate 15 million peso suit against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Arroyo is accused of trying to cover up the atrocity for her allies, the Ampatuans.

Although Reblando is a witness, she is also a complainant and therefore cannot be placed under the witness protection programme.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told the Sunday Post: 'We are very concerned that the bodyguard assigned to her was Zaldy's [Ampatuan].' Lacierda also said other victims' relatives had expressed similar concerns about the security assigned to them but the problems had been sorted.

Being a witness in the case has proved to be a risky business.

Suwaib Upham, alias Jessie, confessed in the media in March 2010 that he was a triggerman in the killings. Months after telling his terrible tale on camera with his face masked, Jessie was shot dead before he could testify.

Carlos Conde, Philippine researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, talked to him not long before he died.

Jessie had said 'he didn't feel safe being in the witness protection scheme'. 'He didn't go into specifics. He just felt it was compromised as far as safety was concerned. He didn't trust the programme,' Conde said.

Another potential witness, police officer Hernani Decipulo, jumped to his death on February 6 from the roof of Camp Bagong Diwa.

According to Decipulo's wife, Norhaya ,who was visiting him at that time, Decipulo told her 'I will go first', just before jumping.

Norhaya told police he had been depressed over the slowness of the case. She said her husband, who was accused of taking part in the massacre, had agreed to turn state witness in exchange for immunity.

Another state witness, Esmail Amil Enog, testified last year that he was one of the militia men who drove gunmen, led by Andal Jnr, to the massacre site. Enog had refused to be placed under the witness protection programme, Conde and his lawyer, Nena Santos, said.

He went missing in March and in June a body chopped up with a chainsaw was found in a sack in Mamasapono, Maguindanao. Relatives identified the remains as Enog's.

And the violence does not end there.

Mangudadatu, who ended up being elected governor in 2010, was the target of a car bomb attack that killed two people on August 15 last year, his birthday.

Jessie's lawyer, Harry Roque, said the killings were having a chilling effect on those about to testify.

Roque said 48 prosecution witnesses, including Reblando, had testified to date and '30 more are able and ready to testify except that the defence has objected'.

He said what was frightening for the witnesses was that most of the accused remained at large and many were policemen and militia members.

Of the 197 accused, 100 were still at large, and 20 of the 97 in custody at Camp Bagong Diwa had not been arraigned.

Andal Snr and Andal Jnr have been charged but another son, Zaldy - the former governor of the Muslim Autonomous Region who is also in jail - has so far not been charged.

Roque said that every time someone was arrested, witnesses had to appear in court to identify them, which put them at grave risk.

The Ampatuans' principal lawyer, Sigfrid Fortun, has blocked prosecution efforts to recruit witnesses from among the accused

'Why are they fishing for testimonies among the accused? These accused will say anything, dance to any music you want to play, so long as they go scot free,' he told the Sunday Morning Post.

Fortun made his reputation defending deposed president Joseph Estrada in his impeachment trial and a trial for plunder.

Asked why witnesses were dying, he said: 'Your guess is as good as mine.'

But he added: 'Not all of those killed in Maguindanao are witnesses. Not all of those scared in Maguindanao are witnesses.'

Fortun also cast doubt on the deaths.

'Are they really dead?' he asked, adding that the claims were made by the prosecution, not the police.

He also noted that several witnesses who had given damning testimony against the Ampatuans were 'all alive and they are all back in Maguindanao'.

Fortun said one potential witness, Alihol Ampatuan Jnr - whom lawyer Nena Santos had said was dead - had recently surfaced to say he was alive and that it was his father, Alijul, who had been gunned down.

Alihol Jnr denied in a radio interview a month ago that he or his father knew anything about the Maguindanao massacre.

But Santos, in a separate interview, said: 'I received a police report that a certain person died and apparently he was one and the same person as Alihol.'

This confusion over establishing a person's real identity is understandable in Maguindanao.

Muslims in the area usually have three names - one for close friends and relatives, another for their voter registration and a third for their passport in case they want to work abroad or go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

And then there's the fact that the tentacles of the Ampatuan clan still control a third of Maguindanao, where six relatives are town mayors and 14 others are vice-mayors or councillors.

Two mayoral grandsons of Andal Ampatuan Snr - the clan patriarch - were personally handed good governance awards by President Aquino on June 20.

The recognition outraged relatives of the massacre victims. The palace said the awards were 'not personality-driven' and the president was standing by his election promise to give justice to the victims.

To Reblando, who campaigned hard for Aquino's victory, the turn of events is bittersweet. 'I really thought my government would ensure I was safe but it did not happen.'

She said that while she felt safe in Hong Kong, 'I did not want to leave, except that I was afraid of compromising the safety of my children.'

Her battle for asylum, and justice, drags on.


The number of journalists killed in the massacre, making it the single deadliest event for journalists in history