Manila, August 17, 2010--The opening trial date for 17 men accused of murder and other crimes in the killing of 57 people--32 of them journalists or media workers--in southern Philippines in November 2009 has been set for September 1. Quezon City Regional Trial Court Justice Jocelyn Solis-Reyes set the date in a pre-trial hearing in the Manila suburb of Taguig City, in a secure courtroom at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
Family members of the victims filled half the small
courtroom as lawyers from both sides sparred over dates and motions. Solis-Reyes
cut through the arguments and scheduled September 1 as the opening date, then
September 8 and 15 for the next dates. The venue for the cases had been moved
from Maguindanao province in the Philippines'
southernmost island of Mindanao to the jurisdiction of the Quezon
City court in Manila
to ensure a fair trial.
"It is encouraging to see the trial for the Maguindanao
massacre move ahead quickly. Because of the scope of the killings and the
complexity of the case authorities must work hard to maintain the momentum,"
said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator, who attended the pre-trial
hearing. "President Aquino's government must make sure that all sides stay
focused on a fast but fair trial, and strive to bring the people who plotted
these killings--not just the triggermen--to justice."
In the courtroom today, there were 15 public and private
prosecutors on the government's side and seven attorneys for the defense.
Philippine law allows for non-government lawyers to assist prosecutors in
preparing and researching cases. Secretary of the Justice Department Leila de
Lima has called the trial a "litmus test" for the country's judicial system,
according to press reports. Nearly 200 people face charges in all.
The November 23, 2009, election-related massacre in the
single deadliest event for the press since 1992, when CPJ began keeping
detailed records on journalist deaths. Those killed were ambushed and brutally
slain as they traveled in Maguindanao province with a convoy intending to file
gubernatorial candidacy papers for Esmael Mangudadatu. Most of the bodies were
dumped in a mass hillside grave in the town of Ampatuan. The accused killers are a part of a
militia on one side of a long- running feud between two rival political clans
competing for supremacy in the area.
Mangudadatu, the winner of the provincial election, and
other members of his family, sat with the victims' family members at Tuesday's
Convictions of the killers of journalists in the Philippines are
Impunity Index, which measures the rate of successful prosecutions, ranks
the country third worst, behind only Iraq