When Andal Ampatuan Sr. died of liver cancer in a Manila hospital on July 17, he deprived the Philippine justice system of his ever having to answer for his alleged role in the murder of 58 people – most of them journalists – in the 2009 “Maguindanao Massacre.”
Ampatuan was a former provincial governor on the southern island of Mindanao whose longtime rule was enabled by his close relationships to political power brokers, including former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He was also the prime suspect in the planning of the killings. Other suspects included seven of Ampatuan’s close relatives, three of them his sons. According to a longtime employee of the Ampatuan clan, Ampatuan and his co-conspirators allegedly hatched the murder plot over dinner a few days before the killings.
The crime was horrific. Esmael Mangudadatu, a local politician, was poised to challenge the gubernatorial seat of Maguindanao province then occupied by Ampatuan’s son Andal Jr. On November 23, 2009, members of the Ampatuan family’s “private army” blocked a convoy of Mangudadatu supporters, including his wife, who were going to register his candidacy. The gunmen herded the group, including 32 journalists and media workers, to a nearby hilltop where they shot and buried them in graves dug earlier using government equipment.
More than five years since the massacre, the case is in judicial limbo, bogged down by numerous procedural challenges filed by the Ampatuans’ lawyers and by the sheer number of accused and witnesses. Indeed, the case, technically speaking, is not yet hearing testimony on the killings themselves because the court is still tackling the bail petitions of many of the accused. While the special court has taken steps to expedite the process, such as assigning another judge to handle administrative matters, these have proven to be insufficient. Even worse, several witnesses have been killed or harassed.
The death of Andal Ampatuan Sr. deprives forever the families of the victims the full measure of justice for their loss. But many defendants remain, including other Ampatuan family members linked to the planning of the crime. Ampatuan’s death should send a strong message to the Philippine government that justice demands a judicial process that is both fair and tolerates no unnecessary delays.