Dropping of Charges Against Two Ampatuans Affirms Impunity

MANILA – Media groups, progressive organizations and relatives of the victims of Maguindanao massacre accused Justice Secretary Alberto Agra of arbitrarily dropping murder charges against two of the primary suspects as political payback to the Ampatuan clan for rigging the 2004 elections to favor President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

“There was no proof of conspiracy and there was a proof of an alibi,” Agra said when he issued the April 17 resolution removing former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and Mamasapano Mayor Datu Akmad Ampatuan from the list of those accused. He cited plane tickets and cellphone records showing that the two Ampatuans were not in Maguindanao when the massacre took place on November 23 last year.

However, for Harry Roque, there is no legal basis for Agra’s resolution.

“Alibi is the weakest defense,” said Roque. He explained that the case is already “within the jurisdiction of the court,” so the Malacañang or the DOJ should not have intervened. The families of the victims will file a complaint to disbar Agra, he added.

“It is lamentable that on this fifth month since the massacre, the Justice secretary has chosen to absolve the two principal suspects. What’s worse is that the DOJ secretary appears to enjoy the support of the President,” said Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan).

In the Maguindanao massacre, dubbed the “worst election-related violence in history,” a total of 58 individuals, including 37 journalists, were killed.

Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, who is running for Maguindanao governor against primary suspect Andal Ampatuan, Jr., sent his relatives to file his certificate of candidacy in a 60-man convoy. However, over 100 armed men reportedly working under Ampatuan, Jr. abducted and killed the members of the convoy.

The relatives of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre and media groups including the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and Freedom Fund for Journalists staged a protest action in front of DOJ on April 21, calling for Agra to either scrap the resolution or resign.

Meanwhile, on April 23, around 200 people from organizations including Bayan, League of Filipino Students, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and Anakpawis marched to DOJ to slam the “maneuverings” of the Arroyo administration in trying to protect the Ampatuans from liability.

“ Our struggle is much like reaching out to the moon as our opponent [the Ampatuan clan] is close the government, said Monette Salaysay, wife of Napoleon Salaysay editor of Mindanao Gazette and one of the massacre victims.

“Our only question, as relatives of the victims is, how much did Secretary of Injustice Agra receive as payment?” Salaysay asked in Filipino.

The dropping of charges means that “anyone can get away with killing 58 people as long as they are under the good graces of the president,” said Rowena Paraan, NUJP national treasurer, adding that the Ampatuans ensured Arroyo’s victory in Maguindanao in 2004.

In the 2004 elections, Arroyo won over Fernando Poe, Jr. by 1.2 million votes. The Congress rejected the petition to open the election returns in Maguindanao, where Arroyo got 100 percent of the votes in almost all municipalities – a “statistical impossibility” according to government critics.

“The suspicion, of course, is that there is Malacanang interference. What Agra did only affirms the culture of impunity. It sends out a message that the killing of journalists can continue,” said CMFR Deputy Director Luis Teodoro. (By KRISTINE ABIGAIL LINGBAOAN and PAULINE GIDGET ESTELLA/Bulatlat.com)