Philippines massacre trial: a test for justice and accountability

The Philippines massacre trial resumed Wednesday in Manila. The trial of a mafia clan accused of killing 57 people last November was seen as the worst act of political violence there in decades.

Bullit Marquez/AP
Relatives of journalists who were massacred in Maguindanao province in southern Philippines on Nov. 23, 2009, arrive at the Philippine National Police's Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig city, east of Manila, for the formal trial of the powerful Ampatuan clan, on Sept. 8.

The trial of a powerful political warlords accused of the premeditated killing of 57 people last November, the Philippines’ worst act of political violence in decades, resumed Wednesday amid concerns over the trial’s sluggish pace and the quality of witness protection.

The trial is shaping up as a test of Manila's resolve to deliver justice and accountability to one of its poorest and most lawless regions, which is the home to a large portion of the country's muslim minority.

Over 100 suspects in the case are still at large, including members of the Ampatuan family, which allegedly led the massacre of a rival clan. A key witness was shot dead in June, one of five such pre-trial killings. Other witnesses have since been put under protection for the trial, which is taking place at a high-security prison compound in Manila.

The victims included 32 reporters who had joined the convoy of the rival clan to cover the filing of election papers for an election on Mindanao. One of the victims called her husband last November, before the abductors confiscated cellphones, and told him that armed militiamen had stopped the vehicles. Prosecutors say that the gunmen then led them to a field where pits had been dug by backhoes, shot the victims, and dumped their bodies and cars in the mass graves. (Editor’s note: this paragraph was edited to clarify time references.)

National outrage

The massacre sparked national outrage and highlighted the might of political warlords in Mindanao, a traditionally Muslim-dominated island. Former President Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal relied on the Ampatuan family to deliver bloc votes for her scandal-tainted reelection in 2004. Opponents accused Ms. Arroyo, who stepped down in June, of returning the favor by allowing the clan to build up a fearsome militia and grow rich from government grants.

Her successor, President Benigno Aquino, has promised to see that justice is done in the massacre case. But observers say that this may be difficult, not least because of the scale of the case and the burden on an overstretched judiciary. Nearly 200 people are accused of involvement and hundreds of potential witnesses have been identified. Only two have testified.

Defense lawyers have filed a thicket of motions ahead of the trial of the first 19 suspects, including the alleged ringleader Andal Ampatuan Jr. The trial began Sept. 8 and is scheduled for weekly hearings. An veteran senator recently claimed that at the current pace the process could last 200 years.

But Prima Quinsayas, an attorney for 17 of the slain reporters’ relatives, said she was encouraged that the judge had cleared her schedule for the trial. “In the Philippines, once a week is fast,” she says. A conviction could take 2 to 3 years, she adds.

Bloody clan feuds have plagued Mindanao for generations. In the massacre aftermath, as government troops were sent to enforce martial law and arrest clan leaders, some predicted a spiraling of tit-for-tat killings and election violence.

A massacre planned over dinner

But Esmael Mangudatu, the clan leader who lost his wife and 24 other female relatives and friends, said that he was not seeking blood revenge against the Ampatuans. His relatives had gone to an Ampatuan stronghold on Nov. 23 to file his papers to run as provincial governor. He says he sent all women to do this task because he didn't think they would be harmed.

“We have the law. We submit everything to justice. All we can do is pray for justice for the innocent victims,” he says, as he took his seat in the courtroom.

A gaunt, shaven-headed man hunched in a brown jacket took the stand. Lakmudin Salio, who spent 23 years working as housekeeper for the Ampatuans, had previously testified that the family had plotted the massacre over dinner on Nov. 17, 2009. He told the court that Andal Jr. had said of the Mangudatus, “we kill all of them when they come here”.

A defense attorney handed Mr. Salio, a Muslim, a Quran and asked him to swear that his testimony was true. Salio held the gilt-edged book aloft and replied, “I swear that the Ampatuans are responsible for the massacre.”

The cross-examination ran for over three hours and elicited no new revelations, though the defense attorney tried to paint Salio, a state witness, as an accomplice to the conspiracy. Several relatives in the public gallery booed their dissatisfaction. Andal Jr., a short man in a canary-yellow prison T-shirt, sat silently on the bench.

Despite the mounting evidence against them, observers say that the Ampatuans are far from a spent force. Clan members and their allies still control around two-thirds of the municipalities in Maguindanao province, and many local officials are seen as loyal ultimnately to Andal Ampatuan Sr., the patriarch who is currently detained in Manila.

Efforts to clean up corruption?

Efforts to clean out the provincial police force, some of who participated in the massacre, have met with resistance, says Jessica Evans, a researcher in Manila for Human Rights Watch. The fact that so many armed suspects are still at large, and that witnesses are being targeted, makes security-sector reform even more urgent. “The underlying cause of the Maguindanao massacre has still not been dealt with or looked into in any way,” she says.

Local prosecutors also appear to have divided loyalties, says Ms. Quinsayas, the attorney. When an Ampatuan gunman turned state witness in January, he was charged with four murders within a week. Several separate charges of murder, arson and illegal firearm possession filed against other militiamen were then mysteriously dropped, she says.

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