VAL G ABELGAS COLUMN Impunity Feeds on Slow Justice

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LOS ANGELES (PHLTODAYUSA) — Last Sunday, I attended a concert presented by the Los Anegels-based National Union of Journalists of the Philippines-USA chapter to commemorate the sixth year of the Maguindanao massacre and to raise funds for the education of the orphans of the 32 media men who were among 58 people killed in that brutal tragedy in 2009.
 
Exactly six years have passed since the 32 journalists and 26 others were mowed down by armed men believed to have been led by Ampatuan Mayor Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr. in what is now known as the bloodiest election-related violence in the country and the worst attack on media men ever.
 
The attack, known as the Maguindanao Massacre, was brazen and brutal that every time I read the witnesses’ accounts of that tragedy, I still seethe with anger. That not a single soul has been convicted makes the tragedy even more tragic, and the fact that it was just one of the many promises that President Aquino has failed to fulfill after 5 years and 6 months in office makes one wonder if it would ever be resolved before he steps down.
 
A total of 197 people, including 15 surnamed Ampatuans, have been charged with murder, including Unsay Ampatuan and his father, former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan, and soldiers, policemen and militia men belonging to the camp of the Ampatuans, who had lorded over the impoverished province with iron fists for years.
 
The Supreme Court reports that as of Nov. 23, the Quezon City Regional Trial Court had “already heard a total of 178 witnesses (93 prosecution witnesses, 27 defense witnesses and 58 private complainants), which leaves us wondering how many more witnesses the court needs before it can make a decision.
 
During a break in the NUJP concert, former Rep. Erin Tanada, former chairman of the House committee on human rights, said in a taped report that QC Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has been nominated for the vacant Court of Appeals post and is awaiting possible appointment. IF the judge gets the appointment, would that mean a new judge would have to take over and go over the volumes of trial records all over again?
 
Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te also said the court is at this point wrapping up hearings on the bail petition of primary suspect Andal Ampatuan Jr. It has taken the court 5-1/2 years to hear the bail petition? By any standard of justice, that is really slow. And yet, the Palace has not shown any signs that it wanted the case solved immediately.
 
Year after year on the day of the massacre, November 23, journalists and relatives of the victims light candles in the hope that it would move the government to give priority to the resolution of the case and, therefore, show that amid the darkness, the light of justice would eventually prevail.
 
President Aquino went under fire in 2012 when during the third anniversary of the massacre, he did not even mention the massacre in his speech during the Ninth Media Summit in Tagaytay City despite the glaring fact that three years earlier to the day, 32 journalists were killed in one of the most brutal and senseless killings ever in the country. The massacre was a clear blow to press freedom and yet it did not merit a word from the President during a media convention.
 
His obviously deliberate omission of the tragic event came amid protests by media organizations and human rights groups demanding justice for the massacre victims and an end to the culture of impunity in the country. This show of lack of interest on the issue of impunity came from the son of two democratic icons and who was swept into office on promises of reform, press freedom, an end to extra-judicial killings, and bringing to justice those responsible for the Maguindanao massacre.
 
Maybe we should remind President Aquino of his stand on the massacre a few days after the event. The then Senator Aquino issued a statement demanding the immediate revocation of Executive Order No. 546, vowing to “never again [use] public funds to support and maintain a private security force.” Two years later, however, he announced that he no longer intended to revoke it, and instead said that he would “professionalize” the militias.
 
This inconsistent human rights policy, plus the slow grind of justice, the continued existence of militias, and the failure of government authorities to pursue the perpetrators of these political killings have contributed to the continuation of the culture of impunity that Aquino, while campaigning for office and during his first two state-of-the-nation addresses, vowed to end but continues to tolerate.
 
The culture of impunity continues under his watch. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), in a report last year, said 145 journalists and media workers have been killed in the line of duty since 1986, including 25 under Aquino’s watch.
 
In September alone, three journalists were shot dead just days apart. This was shortly after a judge in Baler, Tayabas was shot dead and his wife wounded by a lone gunman in front of the court building.
The Philippines has long been one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, with powerful figures able to kill critics in the knowledge they will rarely face punishment. It ranks next only to war-torn Syria and Iraq as the most dangerous countries for journalists.
“We call on President Benigno Aquino to give top priority to swiftly resolving these egregious cases,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Until Aquino demonstrates his government is serious about ending the onslaught, the killings will inevitably continue.”
The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (Ifex), a Montreal-based network of 104 organizations campaigning for freedom of expression in 65 countries, said the “glacial pace of the [legal] proceedings” of the massacre case was contributing to the “ingrained culture of impunity” in the country. Such a culture of impunity “not only denies justice to the victims of this [massacre] case” but also sows fear in society, hence “muzzles the media and promotes self-censorship,” it added. Throughout the Ifex network, Nov. 23 is commemorated as International Day to End Impunity.
 
And the reason that the culture of impunity continues is because nothing has been done to make the wheels of justice run faster. The Maguindanao massacre numbers are glaring: 58 dead, 6 years, 0 justice.
 
The culture of impunity will continue to cast a dark shadow over the country unless the government shows its resolve to arrest the suspects and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law and in the fastest time possible. Finding justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre would be a good start. (valabelgas@aol.com)

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