No justice for the dead
It’s considered the worst election-related violence in recent history and the worst attack on journalists in the country; but five years on, the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
On 23 November 2009, in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, 58 people died when private armies of the Ampatuan clan stopped a convoy, then killed and buried everyone in pre-dug mass graves. The convoy was composed of family members of a rival politician, Esmael Mangudadatu, and 32 media workers who had joined them to cover Mangudadatu’s candidacy in the elections.
Ampatuan is not only the name of the province, but also of its powerful political family. Its patriarchs are the chief suspects in the case. So far, due to ineffective law enforcement and a lack of will to apprehend them, there have been zero convictions and some 84 suspects are still at large – many of whom are members of the Ampatuan clan, the Philippines National Police or Civilian Volunteer Organization members (paramilitary members).
The families of the victims have turned to Pope Francis, who is visiting the country in January, to help them in their quest for justice.
‘Here, in this place where the shots from guns that ended their lives still echo, here in this place where they pleaded for their lives, we fervently appeal to you, Pope Francis, to help us in our quest for justice,’ said Grace Morales, widow of Rosell and sister of Marites
Cabitas, two of the victims, in a letter she read at the massacre site for the five-year commemoration.
The world is watching, keeping a close eye on the Philippines because of the slow wheels of justice, with international and local journalists calling for government action.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) accuse the government of failing to protect the lives of journalists in the Philippines. The two organizations have just conducted a mission in the country in order to assess the situation of journalists there.
The mission, composed of international and Filipino representatives, visited the massacre site, spoke to victims’ families and members of the local media community in southern Mindanao, and had meetings with the police, and justice and government representatives, including Philippine Justice Secretary Leila De Lima.
IFJ Asia-Pacific acting director, Jane Worthington, said in a report on the mission: ‘The Philippines is undoubtedly an epicentre of impunity and this massacre puts the world’s attention on the inability of governments to investigate crimes against journalists. This was the single largest slaughter of media workers and, five years on, not a single conviction has been recorded.’
‘It’s clear that there has been little progress in ensuring justice for the massacre victims, while the suspects of the crime continue to make efforts to stall the case at every turn,’ said Australian representative Mike Dobbie, who has led all IFJ missions since 2009.
A climate of fear continues to pervade southern Mindanao, and it has led to self-censorship and safety fears for local media. For their part, media organizations have failed to address the safety issues affecting their staff.
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch has also called the government’s attention to the issue, especially after the attack on two employees of the Ampatuan family, Dennix Sakal and Butch Saudagal, who were preparing to testify against their employer. The attack was carried out by unidentified gunmen last month, killing Sakal and wounding Saudagal.
The country’s Justice Secretary, meanwhile, acknowledged that the Philippines has a justice problem. ‘There is still a culture of impunity and that is something that we’re trying to address and eradicate,’ she said, adding that financial support for the families of the victims is also on the government’s agenda.
But according to Phelim Kine, deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division: ‘The case is in effective judicial limbo. As [President Benigno] Aquino embarks on the final two years of his presidency, he should recognize that his failure to address the mounting death toll of the Maguindanao massacre could be the ultimate measure of his six years in office.’
The mission found that: ‘Five years on, the families of the victims continue to suffer financially and psychologically and more must be done to support them, particularly as they have been subject to offers of bribes to drop their civil actions in the case.’
It concluded: ‘President Benigno Aquino III’s failure to deliver a secure environment and enforce a respect for basic human rights cultivates an atmosphere that is deadly for journalists in the country.’ It expects to issue a full report on 23 December, five years and one month since the massacre.
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