Trial date set in Philippines massacre of 57

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 Philippine province of Maguindanao is 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 hearing.

Convictions of the killers of journalists in the Philippines are rare. CPJ’s Impunity Index, which measures the rate of successful prosecutions, ranks the country third worst, behind only Iraq and Somalia.