Third witness to Maguindanao massacre killed

The climate of impunity that fostered the November 23, 2009, massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists, is alive and well not only on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, where the massacre took place, but in all of the country. The revelation that the brutalized body of a key witness to the killings, Esmail Enog, was found two months after he had gone missing is an indicator of that. Enog testified last year that he had driven gunmen to the site of the November massacre, news reports said. The killings wiped out almost an entire generation of journalists in the region.

According to Nena Santos, a prosecutor in the case, Enog’s body was mutilated and dismembered before he was killed, apparently in March, The New York Times reported. He is the third witness to have been killed since the trial began in 2010. Santos said Enog refused to participate in the government’s witness protection program because he did not want to be separated from his family, according to The Associated Press.

Enog was an important witness: He had been a driver for the Ampatuan family–the political clan that controlled the area as a personal fiefdom for years, with its own private militia. In July 2011, he told the court hearing the case in a secure setting in Manila that he had driven 36 Ampatuan militiamen from one of the clan’s homes to the site where the 57 victims were shot, almost all at close range.

As Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, reported, relatives of witnesses have also reported being attacked, threatened, offered bribes, and harassed. Enog’s brutal death is part of a larger legal paralysis. In the years since the Maguindanao massacre, Crispin wrote:

The fight for justice has simultaneously intensified in rhetoric and bogged down in technicalities. Legal stalling tactics, a fractured prosecution, and slow-moving courts have conspired against a speedy trial. Despite the case’s high international profile and pronouncements by President Benigno Aquino that justice would be swiftly served, the Maguindanao prosecution has conformed to a disturbingly familiar pattern for media killings in the Philippines: A journalist is killed; local law enforcement officials are lax or complicit; witnesses and complainants are intimidated, bribed, or attacked; the defense employs stalling tactics to break the will and resources of victims’ families; the case goes unsolved and the culture of impunity is reinforced.

The slow progress has raised doubts about the Aquino administration’s ability to achieve justice. On the first anniversary of the killings, Aquino said the resolution of the cases would be a “litmus test” of the country’s justice system. But without a strong executive push the complex case looks likely to stretch out for a decade or more.

In December 2009, I blogged in “Reason to doubt there will be justice in Maguindanao” that:

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.

Since the Maguindanao killings, CPJ has recorded the death of four more journalists who were killed for their work, and another seven murders in which we have not been able to clearly determine a motive. In virtually all of those cases there has been little more than an inconclusive, cursory investigation, with few cases getting beyond the short-term arrests of low-level suspects. The Philippines ranks third on CPJ’s global Impunity Index, slightly better than Iraq and Somalia. Aquino vowed both before and after his election to achieve swift justice in the Maguindanao case. Well into his six-year term, it does not look like he will be able to deliver on those promises.