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2009 massacre haunts Philippines as trial slows

Manila: Five years after gunmen flagged down a convoy of cars and massacred all 58 occupants, including scores of journalists, in a southern Philippine province, the body count continues to rise.Just days before the Philippines
India TV News Desk November 23, 2014 11:47 IST
India TV News Desk

Manila: Five years after gunmen flagged down a convoy of cars and massacred all 58 occupants, including scores of journalists, in a southern Philippine province, the body count continues to rise.

Just days before the Philippines marked Sunday's anniversary of the carnage with prayers and calls to end impunity, another potential witness in the ongoing trial against the politically powerful suspects was gunned down.

Here are some questions and answers about this case—the largest criminal trial in the Philippines since World War II and a litmus test for President Benigno Aquino III, a reformist who has vowed to punish the perpetrators.

Q: WHY IS THE CASE TAKING SO LONG?

A: Justice Secretary Leila de Lima says the case has been slow because of its sheer size and complexity. Nearly 200 people have been charged for the deaths of 58 victims, including 32 journalists and their staff in the largest mass killing of media workers in the world.

The principal suspects are members of the Ampatuan clan, who had ruled Maguindanao province for decades. According to the prosecutors, their motive was to prevent rivals from challenging them in elections. Most of the victims were the Ampatuans' political opponents and the journalists who accompanied them on their way to register their candidacy when they were stopped and killed.

The Ampatuans have denied the charges against them.

Prosecutors have presented 147 witnesses while the defense has begun calling 300 more. Recent proceedings, which are held 2-3 times a week, have been tied up in bail hearings.

At the start of the trial in September 2010, a prominent senator, Joker Arroyo, said that the volume of the case and the intense legal battle could make it last 200 years. He exaggerated to make a point—de Lima says she expects some of the principal suspects to be convicted before Aquino's term ends in mid-2016.

As the trial drags on, however, families of the victims are increasingly frustrated. Complicating the picture is chronic insecurity in the southern region, where gunmen on the loose scare away witnesses. According to prosecutors, at least eight witnesses, potential witnesses and their relatives have been killed in an attempt to suppress testimony.

The latest victims were Dennis Sakal and Sukarno Butch Saudagal. They had previously worked for the Ampatuans but agreed to testify against them, said Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, whose wife, three sisters and other followers died in the massacre.

The two men were riding a motorcycle when gunmen attacked them last Tuesday, killing Sakal and wounding Saudagal. Police have not identified the attackers.

“Each killing of a witness creates a fresh injustice while reducing the chances of justice being served for the families of the victims of this horrific massacre,” said Hazel Galang-Folli of Amnesty International in the Philippines. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The Human Rights Watch says the trial is in “effective judicial limbo” and the continuing attacks on witnesses “a shameful exemplar of impunity in the Philippines.”