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Reason to doubt there will be justice in Maguindanao

On Thursday, CPJ’s Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin posted an entry—“Cries for justice in the Philippines massacre”—on the international mission he was part of in the Philippines this week. The team was following up in the aftermath of the November 23 massacre that killed at least 30 journalists and media workers in Ampatuan, in Maguindanao province, in the southern Philippines.

One of the points he made was:

There is legitimate cause for concern that the case will never be fully prosecuted. CPJ ranks the Philippines as the sixth worst country in which journalists’ killers are brought to justice, according to our global Impunity Index. The country now falls behind only Iraq in the total number of journalists killed since 1992, our research shows.

I just learned today of yet another twist in the case of another killing, that of Marlene Garcia-Esperat in March 2005, and it is an indicator of just how entirely conceivable it is that the Ampatuan killings will not be successfully prosecuted.

In an overnight message, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said that on December 3, an appellate court in Mindanao issued a preliminary injunction that told prosecutors to stop pursuing their case against the accused the alleged masterminds of Esperat’s murder, Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay. Warrants for their arrest were issued in October 2008. The prosecutors have 10 days to respond to the injunction. The move to stop the trial was made because the two men have not been able to return to work and are in danger of losing their positions at the Mindanao Department of Agriculture, the center said.

The Esperat case has become the centerpiece of criminal prosecutions against the killers of journalists in the Philippines. The point-blank shooting of Esperat in her home, in front of her family, was so brutal that it raised an outcry strong enough to be heard globally. In 2006, the three gunmen who carried out Garcia-Esperat's murder were sentenced to 30 years imprisonment apiece. CPJ hailed the sentencing as an important step forward, but called for the prosecution of the men who ordered the killings. And since then there have been no other sentences brought against those who have killed any of the 11 journalists since Esperat’s death—or 41 deaths, if you include the November 23 killings.

In March 2010, the Esperat case will be five years old, and it is still being prosecuted. Certainly, due process must be respected. But, while the two men accused of being the men behind the killing are administrators in a provincial ministry certainly have the political connections and the resources to use the law to their benefit, those connections are not as strong as those of the Ampatuan clan, which controls the governorship of Maguindanao and was a provincial political ally of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Already there are reports of evidence being mishandled and destroyed, some simply stolen. The case’s special prosecutor has been reported as saying he has enough material evidence to continue, but it remains entirely conceivable that while a few of the shooters might wind up being punished for what is the largest killing of a group of journalists in CPJ’s recorded history, it seems possible that none of the powerful and wealthy people behind them will ever be punished, even though Andal Ampatuan Jr. is still being held—the only arrest made so far in the case. He is charged with multiple counts of murder, which he denies, and has applied for release on bail. He belongs to the powerful Ampatuan political clan as the son of Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr., and brother of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan.

When the international investigation team met with Presidential Press Secretary Cerge Remonde on Wednesday in Manila, instead of their requested meeting with President Arroyo, there was a heated exchange between him and CPJ’s Crispin about the culture of impunity that prevails in the Philippines. Despite the numbers, there is still an incredible level of denial on the part of the government that there really is a problem. Arroyo has set up the national police Task Force USIG to investigate media killings, and the federal government’s Task Force 211 supposedly investigates all extrajudicial killings. Some cases have edged forward by having their venues moved to parts of the capital city, Manila. And yet the killings of journalists continue and prosecutions remain rare.

It is wrong to believe that just because the Maguindanao killings have been so widely reported, that either the provincial or central government in this case will be able to muster the political will and the prosecutorial energy to not only bring the men who pulled the triggers to justice, but also the powerful figures who ordered them to do so.

The brutal murder of Marlene Garcia-Esperat, which gained global notoriety, has almost faded from the memory of most people—even in the Philippines, even as the case slogs on. With martial rule declared in some parts of the country and a presidential election and an almost certain change of administration coming in May next year, it is not hard to imagine the same thing happening in the case of the 57 men and women who were killed on November 23. 

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