People commemorate the 10th anniversary of the gruesome Ampatuan Massacre in Manila, Philippines on November 23, 2019.

© 2019 Joseph Dacalanio/Pacific Press/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)
(Manila) – The Philippine authorities’ failure to arrest 80 suspects in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre case puts victims’ families at grave risk, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 19, 2019, a special court in Taguig City, Metro Manila, is expected to hand down verdicts for the 107 defendants in custody charged with the murder of 58 people and other offenses.

Among the suspects not arrested are 14 members of the powerful and influential Ampatuan family, which allegedly planned and carried out the massacre on November 23, 2009 in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao province, on the southern island of Mindanao. At least 50 of the 80 suspects at large are police officers and soldiers, some of whom had provided a close security detail for Andal Ampatuan Jr., the main suspect. The police claim they have had difficulty locating and arresting the remaining suspects because most of them had sought refuge in rebel group strongholds in the southern Philippines.

“The families of Maguindanao victims and witnesses will be at risk so long as suspects remain free,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Regardless of the verdicts in the case, Philippine authorities need to apprehend the several dozen suspects still at large.”

On November 23, 2009, members of the Ampatuan family’s “private army” blocked a convoy of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu, a local politician who was running for governor to challenge the Ampatuans in the elections the next year. The supporters, among them Mangudadatu’s wife, were on their way to the election office to register his candidacy when the gunmen stopped them on the highway and herded the group, which included 32 journalists, to a nearby hilltop where they shot and buried them in graves dug earlier using government equipment.

Since the trial started in 2010, victims’ families and media groups have reported harassment and threats, even forcing the family of one of the journalist victims to seek asylum abroad. Nena Santos, a lawyer who represents 38 of the victims, said that she had received “more than a hundred threats” over the 10 years she has been involved in the case. She said most threats were made through text messages and calls but there had been instances in which people were sent to deliver the threat personally. “They continue to harass, intimidate, and threaten,” Santos said by phone. “Which is why the Philippine National Police should arrest the remaining suspects in the case.”

At least three witnesses in the case have been killed over the years: Suwaib Upham in 2010, Alijol Ampatuan in 2012, and Denex Sacal in 2014. No one has been arrested for these murders.

The Maguindanao case has dragged on for a decade in part because of the sheer number of victims, respondents, and witnesses both for the prosecution and the defense. Compared with regular criminal cases in the Philippines, which typically take years to resolve, the Maguindanao case has been expedited. The Supreme Court created a special court for this case, enabling the presiding judge, Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, to conduct frequent hearings, often three times a week, which is unusual in the notoriously slow Philippine judicial system. The Supreme Court also ordered the use of “judicial affidavits” instead of the direct examination of witnesses, thus fast-tracking the proceedings.

The court’s handling of the trial, along with the Supreme Court’s measures to expedite the proceedings so long as they ensure that the rights of defendants are fully respected, might serve as a model for much-needed judicial reform, Human Rights Watch said. The Supreme Court, for instance, should consider designating a special division that will handle appeals of the verdicts.

Considering the number of defendants who may be expected to appeal a guilty verdict, the high court could be inundated, and the appeals process could last for years and years, delaying justice even further. Because this is a murder case, defendants found guilty will not be allowed to post bail and must stay in detention until the court issues a final verdict.

“It should not take another crime as heinous as the Maguindanao Massacre for the Philippines to reform the delivery of justice,” Robertson said. “But real reforms demand police who are committed to apprehending all criminal suspects, judges and prosecutors who respect defendants’ rights and uphold the law, and elected officials who demonstrate political will.”