An archbishop joined activists and families of the victims of the 2009 Philippine massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists, in welcoming the guilty verdict handed down by a court on Dec. 19.
“The heavens have heard the cry of the poor,” said Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz in the southern region of Mindanao. “No one can escape the justice of God.
”So be it. The court of the land has spoken. We salute the verdict. It is a reminder to criminals that there are laws that will catch up with them.”
For those who were acquitted of the crime, dubbed as the world’s single deadliest attack against journalists, Bishop Jumoad said he hoped that those acquitted “are really innocent.”
A special court declared several members of the influential Ampatuan clan of Mindanao guilty of multiple murder for the killing of 57 people, an unprecedented case of election-related violence.
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Among the members of the Ampatuan clan who were convicted were a former mayor, a former governor of the autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao and three others.
They and several police officers were found guilty on 57 counts of murder and sentenced to “reclusion perpetua,” or up to 40 years in prison, without parole.
Sentenced to up to ten years in prison were 14 police officers and the operator of a backhoe that was used to try to cover the crime scene.
Four Ampatuan family members and 50 other people were acquitted due to “reasonable doubt” and the court also said the prosecution had failed to prove the guilt of three others.
The clan’s patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr., was among the accused, but died of liver cancer while in detention in 2015.
In a 761-page decision, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes ordered the principal accused to pay millions of pesos to the heirs of each of the victims, except that of photojournalist Reynaldo Momay, whose body was never found.
The decision came after ten years of trial marked by several controversies and postponements of hearings, including the murder of one key witness.Journalists say fight continues
The National Press Club of the Philippines and other media groups in the country welcomed the court’s decision but said the fight for justice is “not yet over.”
”We need to continue our vigilance,” said Rolando Gonzalo, the club’s president, at the end of the proceedings inside a police camp in Manila.
Raymond Villanueva, deputy secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the 2009 massacre showed that the “enemies of the freedom of press weren’t afraid.”
”Although the promulgation ended in conviction, our work will not stop. We have to insist the end of media killings and harassment to journalists,” he said.
The College Editors Guild of the Philippines also welcomed the court decision. “Today we are a step ahead in our fight against impunity with the guilty verdict,” Daryl Angelo Baybado, the guild’s president. However, he said the conditions that paved the way for the massacre “continue to exist.”
Law professor Theodore Te said the verdict was a “big step” toward ending the culture of impunity in the Philippines, though more needed to be done.
”It has to be a consistent pattern of being able to apprehend those who have committed crimes or felonies, being able to try them, being able to convict them, and being able to have the sentence executed,” he said.
Of the 197 accused in the 2009 massacre, 101 went on trial. In total, the prosecution presented 134 witnesses while the defense presented 165.
Over the course of the trial, six were cleared, two discharged as state witnesses and eight died in detention. Up to 80 people are still at large.
Hundreds of volumes and tens of thousands of pages of case records piled up throughout nearly a decade.
By the time the case was submitted for resolution last August, Judge Solis-Reyes had heard 357 witnesses over a total of 424 trial days, according to court records.
The conviction came after a decade of mounting pressure from local and international media organizations, plus various other groups.
The convictions are, however, appealable all the way up to the country’s Supreme Court.
On Nov. 23, 2009, a convoy of vehicles carrying the 57 victims were on their way to Shariff Aguak town, the capital of the province of Maguindanao, to file the certificate of candidacy for governor of Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu.
The convoy was blocked by over 100 men being led by Datu Unsay Ampatuan along the stretch of the highway in Ampatuan town.
The victims were then herded to the interiors of hilly Masalay village, where they were executed.