Former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., head of the Ampatuan clan, is a suspect in the Maguindanao massacre. (Reuters/Joseph Agcaoili)
Former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., head of the Ampatuan clan, is a suspect in the Maguindanao massacre, along with his son and four other clan members. (Reuters/Joseph Agcaoili)

Concern as some charges dropped in Philippines killings

New York, April 19, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists is dismayed by the Philippine government’s decision to drop murder charges against Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and his uncle, Akmad Ampatuan, former mayor of Mamasapano on the southern island of Mindanao. The move, announced in Manila on Saturday, overruled the Quezon City Regional Court, which is hearing the Maguindanao massacre case. Four other members of the powerful Ampatuan clan continue to face murder charges.

The men had been charged after the November 23 massacre of 57 people, including 32 members of the media, in the southern province of Maguindanao. Almost 200 people had initially been charged in the November 23 killings, including several members of the Ampatuan family—the most powerful political clan in the area. The two men remain in custody while the local court decides whether it will obey the order.

The decision to drop charges against the two men, widely reported in local and international media, was announced by Alberto Agra, acting secretary of the Department of Justice. “Mere relationship, having the same name, does not establish conspiracy,” Agra told reporters, saying the evidence against Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan is weak.

“Given the Philippines’ abysmal record of impunity in the killings of journalists, President Arroyo’s government has given little reassurance that history will be reversed with this surprise move,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The government must not ride roughshod over the decisions of a court with a simple pronouncement.”

The team of 20 prosecutors pursuing the case denounced the move. In a statement today, they claimed there was a political motive behind the decision, with presidential elections scheduled for May 10. On Monday, many of them appeared on the steps of the Department of Justice building in Manila, calling on Agra to reconsider his decision.

CPJ data show the massacre to be by far the single worst incident in which journalists have been killed. CPJ has expressed fears (here and here) that there would not be a successful prosecution of the perpetrators.

The Philippines ranks second on CPJ’s list of the deadliest countries for journalists, behind only Iraq. The country ranks sixth on our 2009 Global Impunity Index, and would move up if the Maguindanao killings are not fully prosecuted.