Zaldy Ampatuan (AP)
Zaldy Ampatuan (AP)

Accused Maguindanao mastermind may go free

New York, March 8, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists is worried that a special five-judge panel named by the Philippines Court of Appeal in Manila will free the suspected mastermind behind the Maguindanao massacre, or release him on a technicality. Lawyers for Zaldy Ampatuan, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, have entered a plea for the charges against their client to be dropped.

If the lawyers prevail, Ampatuan will be scratched off the list of those accused of planning and carrying out the mass killings in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. The massacre took the lives of 58 people, including 32 journalists.

“Zaldy Ampatuan is certainly entitled to his rights within the Philippines’ criminal law system, but CPJ and other media rights groups hope the judges hearing his petition recognize the appeal for what it is–another attempt to slow down the trial of the men accused of carrying out the worst single attack against journalists in CPJ’s records,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “There must be full transparency in the panel’s decision-making process.”

In April 2009, Ampatuan had first filed the petition while Alberto Agra was the last justice secretary under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Agra quickly reversed his decision to drop Ampatuan from the list of the accused after a local and international outcry. Ampatuan’s lawyers eventually refiled the petition with the court of appeals, arguing that, in reversing himself, Agra had abused his powers as justice secretary.

Five court of appeals judges will hear the arguments and make a decision in a few weeks, according to local news reports.

The victims of the Maguindanao killings were shot and killed in the southern province of Maguindanao as they were travelling in a convoy with the supporters and relatives of a local politician filing candidacy papers in the provincial governor’s race. The Ampatuans is a family of local warlords who have won multiple elections in Mindanao, the southernmost large island of the Philippines archipelago. Six members of the clan are among those in custody for the November 2009 killings.

In CPJ’s 2010 Impunity Index, the Philippines ranked as the third worst country in the world, just below Iraq and Somalia, where journalists are slain and killers go free.