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The Philippines

Victims’ families ‘exploding with rage’ after accused mastermind of Philippine massacre leaves jail to attend his daughter’s wedding

In 2009, the Maguindanao massacre claimed the lives of 58 people, including 32 journalists, making it the deadliest attack on members of the media anywhere in the world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2018, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2018, 10:04pm

Relatives of 32 murdered journalists expressed outrage on Thursday after Zaldy Ampatuan, a prime suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, briefly left prison to attend his daughter’s wedding.

“Our hearts are bleeding profusely and our feelings are exploding with rage by the court’s careless neglect of our feelings,” the relatives said in a statement. “For nearly nine years, [we] have been grieving over the brutal slaying of our spouses, children, siblings and relatives.”

They called Ampatuan’s three-hour pass from jail on Tuesday “an unforgivable insult”. They were not told of the request but had they known, they “would have vigorously opposed it”.

The 2009 massacre claimed the lives of 58 people, including 32 journalists, making it the deadliest attack on members of the media anywhere in the world. Some were shot in their genitals before being buried in a hilltop grave that was dug with a mechanical excavator.

The massacre shocked the world and reinforced perceptions of a culture of impunity in the Philippines. In 2015, the Philippine police force sacked 21 officers for failing to prevent the massacre.

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The murders were provoked by a quarrel between two political clans allied with then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who used local forces as a buffer against Muslim insurgents. Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Snr wanted his son, Andal Jnr, to succeed him but Esmail Mangudadatu decided to run for governor.

Esmail’s wife and relatives, along with lawyers and journalists, were on their way to file Esmail’s certificate of candidacy when they were ambushed and murdered, reportedly by Andal Jnr, civilian militia and members of the clan’s private army. Zaldy Ampatuan, older brother of Andal Jnr, was also accused of planning the massacre.

According to Nena Santos, a lawyer for 25 members of the Mangudadatu family, at least two witnesses, including a servant in the Ampatuan household, have testified in court that Zaldy Ampatuan was “part of the planning”.

Santos said Zaldy was being charged as “the principal by inducement” because the former governor of the Muslim Mindanao Autonomous Region was present during the three stages of planning of the massacre.

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Since the charge is “conspiracy to commit murders”, she said Zaldy faces 58 counts of murder. Murder charges were dropped against Zaldy in 2010 but the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 he should be among those charged.

In the Philippines, high-profile trials can last many years if the accused employ stalling tactics. Even in prison, the Ampatuans remain influential, retaining highly paid lawyers to delay the prosecution. None of the principal accused have been convicted. Witnesses are guarded around the clock in secret safe houses and some have been killed.

Governor Andal Snr died during his trial in 2015 after suffering a heart attack. Following his death, Gloria Teodoro, whose husband was one of the reporters killed, said she felt mixed emotions.

“I could not forgive him because he has shown no remorse, and the fact that the case has dragged adds to our pain,” she said. “I was happy that he’s dead, but sad because we have not got justice.”

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In November 2017, some of the victims’ relatives met with President Rodrigo Duterte, who promised justice. They were brought by their former lawyer, Harry Roque, who subsequently became the presidential spokesman.

Asked about Zaldy’s temporary release, Roque said that “officially, the panel of prosecutors and the president joins them [to] oppose that motion and we’re dismayed that it was granted”.

Coincidentally, Duterte’s presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo was once a lawyer for the accused Ampatuans.

Roque insisted the wedding furlough – and the presence of the president’s daughter and members of his cabinet – would not affect the case.

Santos, though, pointed to the fact that among 60 “principal sponsors” of the wedding were Duterte’s daughter, Davao mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, executive secretary Salvador Medealdea, special assistant and presidential management staff chief Christopher “Bong” Go and peace adviser Jesus Dureza.

Duterte-Caprio recently established a regional party expected to field candidates in next year’s elections. She has not explained why her name is on the list of sponsors in the wedding invitation. She could not be reached for comment.

Santos, who grew up in Mindanao, explained the “principal sponsors” system or the godfather connection established in weddings there, particularly when political clans are involved.

“One, you ask sponsors for political favours. Two, you can join political forces and exchange votes. And three, you can strengthen bonds of friendship,” Santos said.

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She stressed that “the most important reason in the choice of principal sponsor was for asking favours, especially for a relative who was in a bad situation”.

Santos said a verdict could be reached by the middle of next year after the defence rests.